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September 2015 Letter From the Provost

Whenever we say the Apostles' Creed, we profess our belief in the Communion of Saints. This should evoke an image of a great society of mutual assistance, in which the saints in Heaven intercede for us, while we help the Holy Souls in Purgatory with our prayers and by the indulgences we are able to gain for them. This dynamic of charity is a reflection of the Divine Charity which characterizes the Life of the Blessed Trinity, and is a practical expression of the theological virtue of Charity, which is infused into our souls in Baptism.

In The Creed in Slow Motion Monsignor Ronald Knox reminds us of a more prosaic meaning. He says that if you were to have asked St Paul what he meant by ‘the Communion of Saints" he would have said that “when one set of Christians is hard up another set of Christians, in a different part of the world, sends round the hat and takes up a collection for them.”

This is what we need to do, quite urgently, for Christians in the Middle East, where whole Christian communities have been obliterated and continue to be eradicated in places like Iraq, Syria and Libya. Christian men, women and children are being tortured and slaughtered. Countless thousands of the survivors have been driven from their homes and are currently living in abject poverty in refugee camps, in fear for their future.

One of the terrible sufferings these poor people have to endure is the dreadful sense of having been forgotten. Four hundred Christians are murdered on one day, and one hundred and fifty Christians kidnapped on another day, and we hear very little, if anything, about it. Most of the media takes very little interest in the plight of persecuted Christians, and the leaders of the world have other priorities.

The Oratory Fathers recently invited Aid to the Church in Need to make an appeal in our church on behalf of the persecuted. This appeal has so far raised around twenty five thousand pounds. As this persecution is an ongoing crisis, it is hoped that we shall continue to raise funds for those Christians who need our help and will continue to need all the assistance we can give for a long time to come.

As well as giving materially, we also need to pray. The extinction of the Christian presence in great swathes of the Middle East is arguably one of the greatest calamities that civilisation has ever faced. Previously, when western Europe was threatened by the Turks, Pope St Pius V, in addition to calling on Christendom to raise an army, instructed all Catholics to pray the Rosary. It is no exaggeration to say that the victory of the Christian fleet at the Battle of Lepanto on 7th October 1571 saved western Christendom from enslavement. The Feast of the Most Holy Rosary was established in thanksgiving for Our Lady’s intervention.

The plight of Christians in the Middle East is desperate. But even on the natural level there is perhaps a glimmer of hope. In the person of Pope Francis, the Church on earth has been granted a Sovereign Pontiff who has captivated the hearts not only of his own flock, but seemingly of the western world and the mainstream media. Since the publication of his encyclical on the environment, the Holy Father has even been acclaimed as a “world leader” by some of the most hard-bitten secularists on the planet today.

We can only pray that the moral authority which even the media and anti-clerical potentates are now attributing to the Holy Father will play in favour of our persecuted Christian brethren. This month, Pope Francis will visit the President of the United States of America in Washington. On 25th September the Successor of St Peter will address a meeting of the United Nations in New York. Pray hard that the Holy Ghost will take possession of that assembly, so that the hearts of the powerful will be moved to take decisive and swift action to save what remains of the Christian presence in the Middle East. Pray that the Paraclete will inspire the Holy Father to find the right words to galvanise that assembly into action.

In this time of great urgency and untold suffering, there is something we can do, as members of the Communion of Saints, to assist those of the saints who are currently suffering persecution, homelessness and death. We can give generously, to an extent that is self-sacrificial. We should aim to turn that £25,000 raised so far into £100,000, and much more as the months go by. And we can all pray. One of the most powerful weapons we have is the Rosary. Pray it every day for persecuted Christians. And may Our Lady of Victories and the great Pope St Pius V intercede for us all.

We would like to encourage readers to make a donation to Aid to the Church in Need, and to consider supporting their work in favour of persecuted Christians on a more continuous basis. Donations may be made through the Oratory (please make cheques out to “the London Oratory Charity” and indicate in a covering note that they are for the Middle East appeal.) You can also donate directly online, at Please go to the “Oratory Middle East Appeal 2015” donation category.

Fr Julian Large


June 2015 Letter from the Provost

The Oratory Calvary that was installed in 2012 is an internationally eclectic ensemble. The magnificent sculptures were carved in Seville. The background depicting Jerusalem is the work of an English painter, and the classical rail protecting the Calvary was copied from the altar rails in the former abbey church of Ursberg in Bavaria. 

A Premonstratensian foundation of the twelfth century, Ursberg was secularized in 1803 and eventually entrusted to the care of an order of nursing sisters. The abbey church does not appear in the guidebooks dedicated to the ‘baroque trail’ of southern Germany, but its interior is a beautiful monument to the creative genius of local craftsmanship in eighteenth century Swabia. Surrounded by farmland and forests, the impressive abbey buildings are home to a community of nuns who provide education, employment and accommodation for 2,500 handicapped men, women and children.

Standing in the courtyard in front of the abbey church it is hard to imagine that this tranquil spot was the scene of a terrible crime that cried to Heaven for vengeance. In 1941, government officials arrived to load hundreds of the handicapped residents, including children, onto buses. Tears streamed down the cheeks of the nuns as their helpless charges were driven away, never to be seen again.

The residents of Ursberg were victims of the Nazi euthanasia programme, euphemistically called ‘mercy killing’ by the regime that perpetrated it. When this crime was introduced as a policy, it seemed for an awkward moment that many Church leaders had been struck dumb in the face of such horror. But the Church’s prophetic voice found robust expression in the pulpit of Bishop Clemens August von Galen, the ‘Lion of Munster’. His fearless denunciations actually succeeded in forcing a halt to the programme being carried out as a public policy, although in reality the murdering continued to be perpetrated undercover. Needless to say, the moment the war was over, Sadducees who had formerly questioned von Galen’s belligerence suddenly became quite eloquent in hailing the Lion of Munster as a national hero, and by the time von Galen returned from Rome with a cardinal’s hat in 1946, many who had previously given him a wide berth jostled with each other to be immortalized standing next to him in the ‘welcome home’ photographs.

Historic events like the ‘mercy killing’ of the handicapped patients at Ursberg should make us reflect on developments closer to home in our own day. In 2006, the Royal College of Obstetricians presented a proposal calling on the medical profession to consider the ‘active euthanasia’ of disabled children – for ‘the overall good’ of families, and to spare the parents the emotional and financial burden of bringing up sick babies. The Timesreported that this submission received strong support from geneticists and medical ethicists. In 2012 a respected Oxford academic and doctor, originally from Milan, published an article in the British Medical Journal in which she argued that doctors should have the right to kill newborn babies because they are disabled, too expensive or simply unwanted by their mothers. In another article published in the Journal of Medical Ethicswith a fellow Italian bioethicist, she recommended allowing the infanticide of healthy babies in cases where mothers no longer have the time or energy to care for them.

The debate continues, and the British press occasionally reports unsettling allegations of the illegal ‘mercy-killing’ of sick children in hospitals in Britain. Last year Belgium became the first European country to legalise the ‘mercy-killing’ of children at any age. The underlying argument – that once you gain acceptance for abortion it also makes sense to dispose of unwanted children after birth – contains a chilling logic.

When considering the ideological dangers that threaten our civilization, we should avoid making statements such as “It’s like living in Nazi Germany.” One significant difference is that we are free to speak out. As Catholics we should value this hard-won liberty, and use it to engage with public life. Young Catholics should consider involving themselves in politics, in order to keep the Christian voice alive in Parliament. The rest of us can at least support pro-Life groups, which keep us informed and alert us when we should write to our M.P.s. Under National Socialism, any German who made a fuss about the inviolability of every innocent human life from conception to death, regardless of race or any other consideration, could expect a knock on the door from the Gestapo. In the Soviet Union, such views could earn a one-way ticket into a mental asylum. In England in 2015 we are free to proclaim the sanctity of human life as much as we like.

We also have a secret weapon: prayer. Cardinal von Galen was beatified in 2005. Please pray for the miracles that will secure his canonization. The Lion of Munster would make a fitting patron for our age. Pray that through his intercession, the prophetic voice of the Church will sound loud and clear in defence of the Gospel of life. And when you kneel down at the Oratory Calvary, reflect on what happened at Ursberg, and take hope: the witness of the nuns who pray and work there today is a wonderful testimony to the triumph over evil of faith, hope and charity.

Fr Julian Large

May 2015 Letter from the Provost

Normally we celebrate a saint’s ‘birthday’ in Heaven, on the date of his departure from this world to the next. Two notable exceptions are the nativities of Our Lady and of St John the Baptist. This year Oratories around the world will also be marking the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of our holy Father St Philip Neri, whose heavenly birthday occurred on 26th May 1595, and whose earthly nativity took place in Florence on 22nd July, 1515.

We might well wonder what on earth St Philip would make of this world and of the Church half a millennium after his entry into it. Pray God we shall each of us be able to ask him face to face in Heaven. Meanwhile we can but speculate.  Familiarity with St Philip’s life however, may enlighten us on how best to engage with contemporary society in the spirit of our heavenly patron.

The context of St Philip’s astonishingly successful apostolate was one of the more tumultuous periods in the history of Christendom. The Florentine society into which he was born had recently experienced a presage of the cultural tension that would, within his youth, explode into ideological warfare and full-blown schism during the Protestant revolt. In 1498, the Dominican Girolamo Savonarola had been burned at the stake following his sustained campaign of denunciation against the corruption of the disgraceful pontificate of Pope Alexander VI. St Philip actually nurtured a lifelong devotion to Savonarola, drawing a halo on a portrait of the friar which he kept in his room at the Roman Oratory, and praying fervently to the Blessed Sacrament to prevent Savonarola’s writings being condemned in the 1560s.

Similar abuses and scandals to those against which Savonarola had railed in the 1490s were rife in Rome at the time of St Philip’s arrival there in 1534. To make matters worse, the Sack of Rome by the mutinous troops of the Emperor Charles V in 1527 had left the city a devastated vineyard. Palaces had been reduced to rubble, churches desecrated, priests and cardinals murdered in the streets. The consequent low morale of the clergy was exacerbated by the moral turpitude for which the Court of the Renaissance popes has become a byword. Many priests and prelates rarely if ever celebrated the Sacraments for which they had been ordained and went about the city disguised in secular dress. There are records of Roman clergy indulging in sorcery and other abominations.

Considering St Philip’s obvious affection for Savonarola, it might be expected that he would have adopted a similarly confrontational approach to the abuses that surrounded him on his arrival in Rome. During the scandalous pontificate of Pope Julius III, however, there was never any suggestion of St Philip raising his voice against the person of the Sovereign Pontiff. Whereas Savonarola had sent out gangs of his followers to shame Florentines whom they judged to be dressed opulently or immodestly, St Philip playfully told a young man with inordinately extravagant neckwear that he would give him a hug were he not afraid of being grazed by his collar, while a woman who asked if it would be sinful to wear slippers with high heels was told: “Just take care you do not trip.” Savonarola had encouraged artists to consign their own masterpieces to the flames of his ‘bonfire of the vanities’, while St Philip commissioned the great artists of his day to produce art that continues to inspire devotion. Savonarola held polyphonic music to be decadent and inappropriate for Christian worship. The most sublime music accompanying our liturgy in the London Oratory today is the fruit of St Philip’s encouragement of polyphonic composers such as Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina and Tomas Luis de Victoria.

In other words, while Savonarola lambasted the evils of his society, St Philip had a gift for recognising what could be ‘baptised’ in the culture of his day and used for the edification of man and to the glory of God. In the words of Bl. John Henry Newman, “he preferred to yield to the stream and direct the current which he could not stop, of science, literature, art and fashion, and to sweeten and to sanctify what God had made very good and man had spoilt.” His positivity and lightness of touch were so effective in gaining converts that he became known within his own lifetime as the ‘Christian Socrates’, thanks to his dexterity in drawing men away from worldliness and ever deeper into spiritual insight.

Pessimists might easily give up on our culture as one spiralling into self-destruction. St Philip would teach us rather to focus on its potential. There is around us a real hunger for spirituality, even if people are not sure where to look for it. There is a craving for authenticity, although the criteria used to evaluate what is authentic often seem to be hopelessly shallow. Five centuries after his birth into a world which by God’s grace he helped to transform, let us ask St Philip to intercede for our success in doing the same.

Fr Julian Large.

April 2015 Letter from the Provost

Perhaps we think of tension as an evil always to be avoided.  The bodybuilding supremoCharles Atlas would have disagreed. Observing big cats stretching their limbs at the zoo he asked himself: “Did you ever see a tiger with a barbell?” Inspired, Atlas then developed his ‘dynamic tension’ exercise program that was taken up by Kung-Fu guru Bruce Lee and boxing legend Joe Louis, among others. It is founded on the simple principle of tensing muscles in the body while moving against them.

Dynamic tension can also have a role to play in toning the Mystical Body of Christ on earth. We might keep this in mind as October’s Synod on the Family in Rome approaches, as the media presents differing points of view in terms of political warfare. Tension can actually make the body stronger.

In the Gospels, we see a pattern of tension in the interactions between Our Lord and many of His listeners, and especially with the religious hierarchy of Jerusalem. The more He reveals of His mission and of His divine identity, the more the opposition against Him swells. In the fifth chapter of St John’s Gospel, He is condemned for healing a paralysed man on the Sabbath. In response to this criticism, He says to His detractors: “My Father is working still, and I am working.” On hearing this “the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but made Himself equal with God.” His reaction to this is to push the point of His equality with the Father even further: “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son, even as they honour the Father.”

What is revealed in the Gospel, then, is the following dynamic of tension: 1. Our Lord proposes doctrine; 2. A number of His listeners are severely rattled; 3. Our Lord counters their opposition not by softening His message in order to defuse the hostility, but by expounding on the controverted doctrine with even greater clarity and force than before. The end result: there remains little room for doubt regarding His meaning, and out of the murkiness of ignorance comes the pure nutritious milk of Catholic doctrine. His enemies, meanwhile, harden their resolve to bring Him down.

On Good Friday this interplay culminates in a political intrigue among the religious and political leaders of Jerusalem which secures the Crucifixion of God the Son. Our Lord accepts this consequence of telling the truth. The grain of wheat that falls to the ground and dies on Calvary bursts back into life on Easter Sunday, and His Gospel of salvation explodes with irrepressible vigour at Pentecost.

The Church follows Our Lord in this mission of fearless and unembarrassed proclamation of the Gospel. Many are the instances in history in which the ‘dynamic of tension’ has borne fruits that have enriched our understanding of the Faith and our devotion. In the 5th Century, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, downplayed the role of Our Lady in salvation history. Arguing that She gave birth to Our Lord’s human but not His divine nature, Nestorius proposed that the Blessed Virgin should be properly honoured with the title Christokos (Christ-bearer). At the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D., the Church not only condemned Nestorius’ teaching as heresy on the grounds that Our Lady gave birth not to a nature but to a person, and the divine and human natures of Our Lord are united within that one divine Person; She also honoured Our Lady with the highest possible title of Theotokos (God-bearer), so that henceforth She would be hailed as Mother of God.

In the 16th Century, the dogma of Transubstantiation came under assault when significant parts of Christendom protested that what was bread at the beginning of Mass remained bread after the words of Consecration. The Church wasted no effort searching for a ‘middle way’ to accommodate the dissenters. Neither was She satisfied in merely restating Her doctrine on the Sacrifice of the Mass and on the substantial transformation of bread into Our Lord’s living Body and Blood. She went further than this and promoted the Forty Hours Devotion, in which the Sacred Host is honoured with maximum solemnity, and the faithful are invited to lavish on the Blessed Sacrament the adoration that is due to Almighty God alone. This was not for the sake of being provocative, but rather because She saw in the controversy a God-given opportunity to promote devotion to the most precious gift that Our Lord has given us on earth – the gift of His own Self as food to nourish and sanctify us.

In pushing the point of Transubstantiation to its logical conclusion, the Church is faithful to Her divine Spouse. Nowhere is the ‘dynamic of tension’ more evident than in the 6th chapter of St John’s Gospel. When Our Lord announces “I am the bread of life”, there is indignation among the Jews. He counters their murmuring by repeating His initial claim with even greater emphasis: “If any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The tension escalates until many of the disciples beg Our Lord to back down: His popularity after the miracle of the feeding of the multitude is at an all-time high, they argue; how can He throw it all away by insisting on this “hard saying” that no one wants to hear? But Our Lord presses on, so that “after this many of His disciples drew back and no longer went about with Him.” The lesson here is surely that we are never to sacrifice the truth for popular acclaim.

Elsewhere we find the ‘dynamic of tension’ at work on the subject of marriage. In the 19th chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees question Our Lord on divorce. He replies that after marriage a couple is “no longer two, but one”, adding: “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” The Pharisees retort that even Moses allowed for the possibility of divorce. Our Lord responds: “For your hardness of hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” The disciples complain that this hard-line approach makes marriage sound such a formidable undertaking that it does not seem worth the trouble. Our Lord refuses to back-peddle. He has come to give us new hearts. As a result of this particular ‘dynamic tension’ we are left in no doubt about the indissolubility of the marriage bond.

We should pray hard for the Synod on the Family, and not waste energy fretting over what the press might have to say. One hears the suggestion that the best possible outcome in October can only be a soggy compromise that somehow preserves the integrity of doctrine. The assumption seems to be that the only alternative to such a trade-off is the disunity that will erupt if different schools of thought fail to reach an agreement. This surely underestimates the action of the Holy Ghost. Speaking at a press conference, His Eminence Vincent Cardinal Nichols reminded us of the real purpose of the Synod: “on the one hand to give a resounding trumpet call in support of marriage and the stability of family life, and on the other hand to express and strengthen the pastoral response of the Church in a wide variety of difficult and pressurised situations.” Let us pray, then, not for a lacklustre compromise, but rather for a divinely-inspired consensus that gives a renewed credibility and persuasiveness to the Church’s witness to the Gospel.

Fr Julian Large

March 2015 Letter from the Provost

In the Gospel at Mass on the Second Sunday in Lent, the Church invites us to accompany Our Lord and three chosen Apostles on to Mount Thabor. To encourage us in our Lenten program of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, She allows us a glimpse of Our Lord’s divine identity in the Transfiguration. As His face shines like the sun and His garments become as white as snow, it is as if a few rays of His Glory manage to break through to stop us in our tracks.

Throughout His earthly life, Our Lord keeps this Divine Glory carefully hidden. This surely has to do with His plan for our salvation. He has not come to dazzle us into submission, with spectacular displays of divine majesty. Rather, He has come to invite us to unite ourselves with Him in faith and love. He unites Himself with our frail humanity in order to draw us into the Mystery of His own divine life. St Paul tells us that Our Saviour came to die on the Cross to make us co-heirs of His glory (Rom 8.17).

So why this extraordinary revelation of His Glory in the Transfiguration? The disciples invited to join Our Lord on the mountain are Peter, James and John – the same three who will very soon accompany Him into the Garden of Gethsemane on Holy Thursday. This display of glory at the Transfiguration is given to confirm them in their faith in the Incarnation. They will see Him suffer in His humanity, and so they are given this glimpse of His Divinity.

But the Transfiguration is also for us. It indicates that we, too, are called to participate in the Glory of the Blessed Trinity. The seeds of this Glory are planted already in Baptism, when Sanctifying Grace is infused into our souls, and we become living temples of the Holy Ghost. However, the splendour of this divine life radiating from the soul remains invisible until, pray God, our souls are elevated to the state of Glory in Heaven. At the end of time, our bodies will be reunited with our souls, when, as St Paul informs us, “the body that is sown in corruption” will be raised in incorruption, power and glory (1 Cor 15.42). Our Lord Himself promises that “the just shall shine as the sun, in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt 13.43).

The Transfiguration reminds us that only a small part of the reality of things is visible to our eyes or detectable to our senses. We cannot see the angels who surround us, or even our own Guardian Angel who is always with us. Neither can we see in any direct way the effects of grace or sin on the human soul. We know in Faith, however, that the angels and demons exist, and that the effects of grace and sin on the soul are very real. This means that it is only through Faith that we are truly able to live in reality, even if now we still see through a glass darkly.

It was for our salvation that Our Lord laid His Glory aside. In the Old Testament God instructs us that no mere mortal man can look upon Him and live (Exod 33.20). Our Lord’s mission is to make God accessible. This is why, in the New Testament, He reveals His Divinity indirectly, through signs and words. His aim is to befriend His disciples on the human level, and to break them in as gently as possible to the Mystery of the Incarnation. It is also essentially important that they should appreciate His authentic humanity, as well as His Divinity.

At the close of time, this era of shadows will come to an end, when Our Lord returns in glory, and His Presence fills the skies from East to West. Then there will be no denying that Jesus Christ is God and Lord of all creation. Meanwhile, we live in faith – the faith that tells us that although Our Lord has been hidden from our eyes since His Ascension, He is in fact here with us now, in various ways. As God, He is of course everywhere. He is alive in a supernatural manner in the hearts and souls of everyone who is in a state of grace. He is present and alive in the most wonderful manner in the Blessed Sacrament.

It is surely a mark of His tenderness and love for us that He disguises Himself on the Altar, under the accidents of bread and wine, even though this means allowing for the dreadful possibility that His Presence might be desecrated. If we could see the glory of what, and indeed Whom, we receive in the Sacred Host, who amongst us would ever dare to approach the Altar for Holy Communion? Which priest would ever be brave enough to take the wafer into his hands and say the words of Consecration at Mass? But He wants us to approach Him. If we are in a state of grace, He actually invites us to receive Him and to eat His Body and His Blood.

It is very easy to lose sight of the divine nature of the Church, when the garments of the Bride of Christ can seem so spoiled by sin and by the scandal of internal politics. Like those disciples who fled when they saw Our Lord crucified, we too can become disheartened and discouraged, even tempted to flee, when we see Christ’s Church suffering because of the sins of Her members. The event of the Transfiguration, however, reminds us to look beyond the wounds and bruises that have been inflicted on the Church by the shortcomings of all of us, and to see the Church as Christ’s Mystical Body on earth which will one day be subsumed and glorified in His Mystical Body in Heaven.

Peter, James and John are given the strictest instruction to keep what they witness in the Transfiguration secret until after Our Lord’s Resurrection. But after that they are to proclaim it from the rooftops. The Transfiguration has a powerful message for us today. In contemporary life it seems inevitable that for much of the time our attention will be focused on the daily necessities of earning a living and getting from one part of our congested city to another. In Lent, however, we are invited to readjust our focus by penetrating beyond the appearance of things, and learning to live our whole lives in the presence of God Who is not only all around us, but also within us. As well as meditating on the mysteries of our salvation, we should also examine the state of our own souls. Is the grace we received in our Baptism still ablaze? Perhaps it is flickering almost imperceptibly like the pilot light in a gas boiler? Or has it been extinguished by mortal sin, so that it needs to be re-ignited in the Sacrament of Penance?

The Transfiguration points us to a glory that God wishes us to enjoy forever in eternity in Heaven. It also indicates an interior splendour that is within our reach in this life. What shall we do about it?

Fr Julian Large

February 2015 Letter from the Provost

In the whole of Sacred Scripture, there is no scene that appeals to the imagination of children better than Noah’s Ark. The drawings that decorate the walls of Christian primary schools all over the world tend to depict smiling giraffes stretching their necks out of the windows of Mr and Mrs Noah’s well-appointed living quarters while lions and sheep stand shoulder to shank in bucolic harmony on the deck.

The reality must have been somewhat less idyllic, after Noah and his family had sealed themselves into the damp and dark, and huddled in close confinement with malodorous ill-tempered beasts while the rising torrents thundered and crashed all around them.

During Lent we are encouraged to batten down the hatches against the temptations of the world and the devil from without and to do battle with the wild beasts of our own vices within. Meanwhile the Ark which is the Church transports us on the forty day journey into the Pascal Mystery of Good Friday and Easter. For the same period that Noah and the animals were shut up in the Ark, we are to apply ourselves with greater intensity than usual to what, as disciples of Christ, we are meant to be doing all the year round: praying, alms-giving and mortification.

Say the word mortification in polite society, and the reaction will most likely be negative. The post-Freudian mindset in which modern opinion has been formed tends to associate the idea of Christian mortification with a warped, unwholesome view of human nature.

Obviously this is a case of double standards in operation. The same metropolitan sophisticates who shiver with disapproval at the mention of Christian mortification will gladly spend mind-boggling sums of money on starvation diets and self-torture regimes in Teutonic spas, all in the cause of body beautiful. At the more fashionable of these places the menu is likely to consist of formidable doses of Epsom salts and pieces of stale bread, each morsel of which has to be chewed forty times. Presumably the calories burnt in exercising the jaw exceed those consumed in the food.

Dare to suggest that it is a good Catholic practice to fast and discipline our bodies for the sake of our immortal souls, however, and the response will be an embarrassed silence.

Perhaps this has something to do with a suspicion that the Catholic Church has contrived to make a cult out of suffering for its own sake – a prejudice which has been exploited and reinforced in our age in novels like The Name of the Rose and The Da Vinci Code. But nothing could actually be further from the truth. The suffering which Christians voluntarily embrace is very much a means to an end. Through self-denial we detach ourselves from enslavement to earthly preoccupations so that, as St Peter says, “your prayers may not be hindered.” (1 Pt 3.7) We endure discomfort so that our wayward appetites might learn obedience to our reason and to our will. In this sense, mortification serves to liberate us from the tyranny of our passions.

None of this is unique to Christianity. We only have to reflect on the ascetic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism to realise that the practice of self-denial is a feature of many religions. Where the Christian understanding of mortification is perhaps unique is in the fact that it is woven so inextricably into the very Mystery of Redemption itself.

In the words of Our Lord: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains alone. But if it dies it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12.24) Although these words obviously refer to His own Passion, they also apply to us, because while His Passion and Death pay in full the price for our sins, we are invited to unite ourselves to and participate in that work of Redemption. This is surely what St Paul means when he says “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His Body that is the Church.” (Col 1.24) There can be no suggestion that the Sacrifice of Calvary is in any way deficient. Less than a drop of the Precious Blood would be more than sufficient to save the whole human race. What St Paul is saying is that when our own sacrifices and sufferings are united with those of Our Saviour, then they take on the supernatural value that merits rewards not only for ourselves but also for Christ’s Mystical Body the Church.

There can be a temptation to assume that real mortification is just for a chosen few – those spiritual champions and heroines who retire from the world to the cloister and the hermitage. But the truth is that we all receive the vocation to die to ourselves when we are baptised. To understand this better it might be a good idea at the beginning of Lent to read and reflect on the sixth chapter of the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?” asks St Paul; “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6.3-4) After Baptism, we are to continue dying to ourselves, so that the life of the Resurrection might take ever greater possession of us. We are to dethrone the ego and all self-centredness so that He might be enthroned in our hearts forever.

The Sacrifice of all sacrifices that He made on the Cross was a gift of His own self, and herein is the key to any genuinely Christian mortification. For our self-denial and sacrifice to be pleasing to Almighty God, they cannot consist in a sterile exercise in self-improvement.  They must be accompanied by an increase in charity. For this reason, in Lent, the Church also enjoins us to give alms. And surely whatever we are able to give materially is meant to be a mere token of a growth in the virtue of charity. Whether or not we have managed to lose an inch or two around the waist by the time Good Friday arrives will be of little interest to God. What will be pleasing to Him will be a heart that has been expanded by loving, giving and forgiving with ever greater generosity and self-sacrifice.

The Church, then, is like a great Ark, and Her Liturgy is the seascape through which She transports us. During the forty days of Lent, we are carried towards and through the Mysteries that are central to our Redemption. If we make a serious effort to deny ourselves, to pray more and, most importantly, to be more charitable and giving, then we shall take part in this voyage not so much as passengers and spectators but as participants. Through our own mortifications, our prayers and our growth in charity we shall be more effectively united to the Passion and Death of Our Lord. Having died to ourselves, we shall be better prepared to participate in the joy and the glory of His Resurrection on Easter Sunday.

Fr Julian Large

January 2015 Letter from the Provost

The beginning of January is traditionally a time for New Year’s resolutions. The ‘lifestyle’ sections of the newspapers, meanwhile, encourage everyone to enrol on stringent ‘detox’ programmes to repair any harm inflicted on the body by the excesses of the Christmas holidays.

It is easy for us to smile at these secular attempts at self-improvement. Usually the resolutions made on 1st January will soon be broken and forgotten, and in many cases they were not worth keeping or remembering in the first place. ‘Detoxing’ often seems to involve the consuming of expensive quack potions, the purgative effects of which have never been proven scientifically to have any lasting beneficial effect on the human body.

Rather than mocking from the sidelines, however, perhaps we should baptise the spirit of the season and make our own resolutions and submit ourselves to some spiritual detoxification. Of course, for Catholics, the ‘new year’ actually began liturgically some time ago, on the First Sunday of Advent. But if we neglected to make good resolutions then, or made some but have since lapsed, now would be an excellent opportunity to renew them or to forge resolutions afresh.

For a disciple of Christ, good resolutions are actually something that have to be made or renewed every day of the year throughout a lifetime. Whether it is to be kinder, more truthful, to be less angry or to give up gossiping, or to avoid those places, situations and people that lead us into sin, such resolutions should be a fruit of the examination of conscience that we are encouraged to make towards the close of every day. With our ‘morning offering’ – the daily prayers with which we launch ourselves into the world – we can then ask for the divine help we need to keep our resolutions.

 On the Feast of the Epiphany, the Church celebrates the manifestation of the Word Incarnate to the Gentiles, which demonstrates to the world that the salvation the Christ Child offers is not to be restricted to any particular race or nation. He has come to bring detoxification from the effects of Original Sin to all people and peoples who will kneel in adoration at the Crib. The Epiphany also commemorates two other manifestations, which the liturgical calendar unwraps gradually by presenting them separately in the Gospels appointed for subsequent days. These are the miracle at Cana in Galilee, at which the water turned into wine prefigures the miracle of Transubstantiation at Mass and the transformative power of the Sacraments in general, and the Baptism of Our Lord by St John.

It goes without saying that Our Lord had no need of Baptism. Saint John’s Baptism was a ritual washing, which symbolised the washing away of sins. We can imagine the waters of the Jordan as teeming with the sins of those who flocked to the banks of the Jordan and were moved to repentance by St John’s hellfire preaching. When Our Lord entered that river, He detoxified the waters by taking those sins onto His own shoulders, just as He would bear the sins of the world on His shoulders on the Cross. And in that moment of contact with the Word Made Flesh the waters of Baptism ceased to be merely symbolic and became truly efficacious in dissolving sin and restoring the soul to the life of Grace by applying to us individually the merits of His Sacrifice on Cavalry.

Those of us who have been blessed with Baptism have already been detoxified from the poison of Original Sin. Subsequent sins committed, however, mean that we often need to ask God’s forgiveness and allow Him to detoxify us anew. In the Sacrament of Penance, we open our hearts in repentance, and the humility it requires to enunciate our transgressions and to resolve to make amends is so pleasing to God that He washes us through with an ocean of grace, restoring to us the spiritual nutrients that have been dissipated.

At Our Lord’s Baptism the Heavens open and the Holy Ghost appears in the form of a dove while the voice of God the Father declares: “Behold my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” This demonstrates that Baptism is a Trinitarian event, in which we are united with the Son, become living Temples of the Holy Ghost and beloved children of the Father. At the font, then, we are actually elevated to a new and supernatural level of life, in which we participate in the communion of life and love that flows eternally between the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity.

One good resolution we can all surely make at the beginning of this year is to deepen this relationship of communion and communication by putting greater effort into our prayer life.  People get into a stew about prayer, with the result that they can end up avoiding it altogether because they “do not know how to pray.” The simple answer is: “Get on with it.” Certainly, there are different ‘schools’ of prayer, and yes there are vast libraries on the subject full of fascinating and invaluable insights written by saints and mystics. In its essence, however, prayer is no more complicated that “the lifting of the mind and heart to God.” When we do that, and when we communicate our thoughts, our joys and sorrows, our hopes and fears, thanks, praise and petitions to God, then He is able to communicate His divine life to us in abundance. When our words run dry, we need not be discouraged. It is a reminder that we also need to rest in silence, allowing God to speak to our hearts. Our Holy Father St Philip encouraged very simple prayers to put ourselves in God’s presence, such as “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, pray to Jesus for me.”

To find basic nourishment for prayer and meditation, we should revisit Holy Scripture. At this time of year, the mysteries celebrated in the Epiphany – the adoration of the Magi, the marriage at Cana and the Baptism of Our Lord – provide a rich source for inspiration. In a season in which we are used to hearing high-minded clerics declaiming against the evils of consumerism, we can try another type of consuming: consume the word of God in Scripture. Devour it and digest it, like the Prophet Ezekiel eating the scroll of God’s judgments so that it became a part of him and he had something to say. Combine this with the spiritual detoxification of Confession and with the restorative exercise of prayer, and we shall have made some New Year’s resolutions worth keeping.

Fr Julian Large

December 2014 Letter from the Provost

If recent celebrations of Christmas are anything to go by, many thousands of the faithful and the not-so-faithful will flow through the Oratory Church this 24th and 25th December. In some churches those who roll in for Midnight Mass and never darken the doorstep of a church again for another 364 days risk public castigation. This would never happen at the Oratory, where the fathers are delighted to welcome all-comers – especially those who slip in at the back of the church just for the pre-Mass carols and then get swept up to the front by the crowd and end up stuck listening to the sermon.

The Crib excludes no one. The open stable is an invitation. It reminds us that the new born King of kings came to Bethlehem to establish His rule not by force but rather by winning a place in the hearts of His subjects. He comes in fragile human flesh as an innocent child to impress on us that, unless we become like little children ourselves, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We have to divest ourselves of the encumbrances of worldly sophistication, and clothe ourselves in the simple garments of meekness, poverty of spirit and purity of soul.

The circumstances of the Nativity are an invitation especially to the poor and the homeless. The poverty of the stable will surely speak with special poignancy to those Christian communities and individual Christians around the world who have been dispossessed through persecution and conflict, and who will have no church to go to this Christmas. The scene at the Crib should inspire us to pray for those of our fellow Christians who have been uprooted, and to donate what we can to excellent charities such as Aid to the Church in Need who support them.

Like the open stable, the manger is an invitation. To the Catholic sensibility the fact that the manger is a feeding trough and Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread’ must suggest a highly Eucharistic significance to the scene in the stable. For centuries the Preface used at the Mass of Corpus Christi, which is always celebrated during the height of summer, and at other Masses of the Blessed Sacrament, was always the Preface for Christmas. This served to emphasise the fact that the Eternal Word Who became Incarnate in Palestine two thousand years ago also comes to us in His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity at the Altar every time the Sacrifice of the Mass is offered by a priest.

The scene of a baby placed in a feeding trough in a draughty stable should move us to offer Him a home. And what better place to give Him a home than in our own hearts? This is what we do whenever we receive Him sacramentally in Holy Communion. We consume the Word made Flesh, so that He takes up His abode within us. And if the reception that the King of Kings receives from the world is often cold and hostile, we pray that within our hearts He may find an abode that is warm and tender.

The Church’s rules or precepts only insist that a practising Catholic must receive Holy Communion once a year, around Easter time, just as we are only bound to make a sacramental confession of our sins once a year. This is to ensure that when we do receive the Blessed Sacrament it is always in a State of Grace. Yes, Holy Communion is ‘food for the journey’ rather than a reward for perfection. But it is not something that we should ever dare to take lightly. If the light of grace has been extinguished within us through mortal sin, then the first thing we need to do is to have it rekindled in our hearts through the Sacrament of Penance. The grace that was given to us so momentously in the Sacrament of Baptism needs to be restored to us through the momentous action of the confession of our sins. If someone is living in an irregular relationship, then he needs to make the necessary adjustment to his life that is required for life ‘in the Spirit’. This conversion is a necessary part of the divesting of any worldly encumbrances that prevent us from being like little children. Repentance and restoration to grace turn our hearts into living tabernacles fit to receive the King of Kings.

At Holy Mass the Word is made Flesh by the transformation of bread and wine into Our Lord’s Body and Blood. And we are fed with this Sacrament – the Blessed Sacrament – so that we too might be transformed, and so that we might carry Our Lord with us into the world. We have to pray that when others encounter us, they see the face of Christ, and find the embracing warmth and acceptance that the shepherds found at the hearth of the Manger.

We might well ask ourselves: What does the world outside make all of those thousands streaming in and out of the Oratory Church over Christmas? Most probably, it says: ‘So what?’ and then carries on very much as before. That should bother us. It poses a serious challenge to us as disciples of a Saviour Who came to win a place in the heart of every man, woman and child. How can we attract these ‘outsiders’ and bring them towards discovering the Bread of Life Who offers us and them eternal life from the Manger?

What if our parish were to be a byword for the Corporal Works of Mercy – for visiting prisoners and the lonely and for extending the embrace of care and friendship to those who have nothing and no one? That would be a sign to the world that the Word Made Flesh is not only alive in the Tabernacle, but also very much alive and active in our hearts. The sight of the Christ Child in the frailty of human flesh, exposed in the stable to the cold of the night, should move us to want to minister to Him. He invites us to minister to Him in His poor and in those who suffer through the isolation of feeling unneeded and unwanted.

The Oratory currently offers various ways of ministering to the Christ Child in the needy, including support for the homeless, the possibility for families to adopt an elderly person or couple, and visits to the housebound. To find out how you might become involved, please see our website or email us on

Fr Julian Large

November 2014 Letter from the Provost

Historically, Church synods have sometimes been the occasion of acrimony. A series of rancorous ecclesiastical gatherings in the 9th Century culminated in the “Cadaver Synod” in 897, when His Holiness Pope Steven VII dug up the rotting corpse of his predecessor Pope Formosus, dressed it in pontifical robes and put it on trial in the Basilica of St John Lateran. Declared guilty of perjury and other offences, the papal cadaver was then stripped, mutilated and eventually dumped in the Tiber. In more robust ages than our own, ecumenical councils have provided the setting for name-calling, beard-pulling and broken noses. Judged by these standards, the proceedings of the recent Synod on the Family in Rome seem to have been positively civilised. Clashes of opinion on such occasions are only to be expected, however, and so, in itself, the fact that there were reports of disputes around the Synod should not shock.

Religious differences tend to evoke a passionate response. We see many examples of this in Our Lord’s ministry, which culminated in Him being crucified at the instigation of the religious hierarchy of His day. In the Gospel of St Matthew we find an account of a man sick of the palsy who is carried to Him on his bed. Our Lord horrifies the Scribes by telling the man his sins are forgiven. The forgiveness of sins is an indisputably divine prerogative. As His Holiness Pope Francis is reported to have said in a recent sermon, “God is a God of surprises”, and this particular expression of Our Lord’s compassion is evidently one surprise that the Scribes are not ready for. Rather than rejoicing at His mercy, they accuse Him of blasphemy.

 Telling a sick man that his sins are forgiven today, in the current climate, would be likely to cause outrage for different reasons. The very suggestion that there might be any connection between sin and sickness would have most people up in arms. “How cruel”, we would hear; “How ‘judgmental’. How dare you talk about sin to someone who is ill?” The tyranny of the cult of sentimentality under which we now live means that a priest has to be especially sensitive in the way he asks a dying patient if he would like to confess his sins. Even the faintest implication that a sick person might not be guaranteed an immediate front seat in the Heavenly Court is likely to provoke uproar on a hospital ward.

The media reported some very strange news from the Synod in Rome. There were accounts of proposals being made for the Church to abandon all use of words like sin in connection with premarital cohabitation, or adultery with regard to divorced couples who remarry without gaining an annulment. As ever, we should exercise extreme caution here. The media’s main priority is certainly not the promotion of the Kingdom of God. As Catholics, we do not base our Faith on the reports of the press. Our Faith is founded on the word that the Incarnate Word entrusted to the Apostles, a life-giving doctrine that has been transmitted unchanged for two millennia, and which will continue to be taught, unchanged, until the end of time. Our Faith is sustained, not by reports from the BBC or even the Catholic press. It is sustained by the divinely revealed truth of the Gospel. And in the Gospel, Our Lord has very clear and unmistakable words about divorce and remarriage. He uses the word ‘adultery’ in this context without hesitation.

In the Gospel account of the healing of the man with the palsy, Our Lord leaves us in no doubt whatsoever about the main priority of His mission. Yes, He desires to heal the sick and to befriend the poor. But first of all, and most importantly, He comes to conquer sin, and to save us from our sins. Thanks to sin, we are all sick and we are all poor.

Saving men from their own sins is, for Our Lord, the highest form of compassion. It would have been easy for Him just to tell the paralysed man “Arise and walk. You are healed”. That would have been politically more astute, from a worldly point of view. Then He would have gained the adulation of the multitude without opening himself up to the charge of blasphemy.

But Our Lord is the Saviour and not a politician. He goes straight to the very heart of the human predicament, and tells the man: “Your sins are forgiven.” And the fact that the man then gets up, and carries the bed on which he has been carried up to now, gives credibility to Our Lord’s claim to forgive sins. It leaves the scribes looking very silly. Rather than acknowledging their fault in humility, however, these professional religious men plot revenge.

There is no suggestion in the Gospel that the man’s sickness was a direct result of any sin that he had committed himself. But Our Lord knows that all sickness and all suffering is ultimately a consequence of that Original Sin of Adam and Eve. That act of rebellion was a calamity, which sent fault lines ripping through the whole of Creation. And as Our Lord has come to make all things new by reversing the deadening consequences of Original Sin, He goes straight to the origin of human suffering: “Be of good heart, son, your sins are forgiven thee.” The man is made whole in body and soul.

Today, there is a frantic, frenetic effort to drive a wedge of opposition between compassion and mercy on the one hand, and orthodoxy in Faith and Morals on the other. All that matters, apparently, is to be ‘nice’, and to be accepted by the society in which we live. We are told that we cannot talk to people about sin any more, because that will sound ‘judgmental’ and it will only drive people away. The damage to the Church’s credibility from an internal culture of cover-up and dissimulation which has prevailed in recent times also makes the clergy understandably timid about talking about other people’s sins.

But look at how the Good Shepherd shows compassion. He goes out in search of His sheep and He saves them from sin. He does not leave them drowning in the mire of sin, with the empty assurance that everything is alright. He risks the wrath of the Scribes and Pharisees by forgiving sins. That is true charity and true compassion. And it is the very essence of the Church’s mission. When He looks at the sick man, He does not just see someone who is physically paralysed. He sees a wonderful potential for spiritual flourishing which has been thwarted by sin. His desire is to remove that obstacle so that the man is liberated and free to grow in the divine likeness for which he was created.

We just cannot have true charity or true compassion without humility. And humility means recognising ourselves for what we are. It means realising that, while we have been created in God’s image, we have lost the likeness to God through sin. So humility involves acknowledging the reality of sin, and the fact that we have all, each and every one of us, sinned, and we all need God’s forgiveness. Take this acknowledgement of sin away, and our efforts at compassion and charity become mere humanitarian activism, and that cannot save anyone.

So we have to be honest about sin. At the same time, we cannot expect anyone to take the moral teaching of the Gospel seriously if all we do is bang on about sin and the need for doctrinal orthodoxy. When Our Lord forgave sins, He supported this with a sign of credibility – the very powerful sign of healing the sick. This meant that when He claimed to forgive sins, He could not be dismissed as a mere fantasist or story-teller. People had to take notice, whether they wanted to or not, because His claim was backed up with a mighty miracle. And those with eyes to see acknowledged that this was truly the Saviour, Who had come into the world to save the whole man, body and soul.

And we must give signs of credibility to the Faith that is in us. Our generosity, and the compassion and the love we show to our neighbour, and especially to the sick, the poor and the elderly, must make our whole lives a sign of credibility. But for our good works to have a supernatural value that counts for Heaven, we first of all have to acknowledge our own sins, confess them and be restored to the Likeness of God in the Sacrament of Penance. Then we shall be spiritually alive, and we shall have something to offer.

The recent Extraordinary Synod in Rome marked the beginning of a whole year of discussion, which is set to culminate in another Synod next October, at the end of which the Holy Father is expected to publish an Apostolic Exhortation. Pray that the Holy Ghost will conquer the forthcoming deliberations, so that they bear nutritious fruit in the Church and in the world. Pray that the Church will speak in the language of Our Saviour with renewed energy and a life-giving zeal, so that the beauty of family life, matrimonial faithfulness, chastity and virginity are proclaimed with dazzling conviction and credibility. The modern world is like a parched wasteland thirsting for this Truth like never before. Pray that, as a result of this Synod in Rome, many sinners will be drawn to repentance so that through confession, absolution and conversion they may be raised up and set to walk again in the Life of Grace that was given to them in Baptism.

October 2014 Letter from the Provost

When St Philip died in 1595, all of his possessions were lovingly preserved at the Roman Oratory. To this day, if you manage to fight your way past the ferocious sacristan at the Chiesa Nuova, you can see them displayed in the rooms where St Philip lived. Amongst these relics there is an intriguing object that connects St Philip with England. It is an alabaster relief, sculpted in Nottingham in the late Middle Ages, depicting the severed head of St John the Baptist. A faded label describes the dramatic circumstances by which it came to Rome. It was discovered on 7th October in 1571 at the Battle of Lepanto, in the cabin of a Turkish sea captain. 

The man who rescued that image of the Baptist was a Knight of Malta whose name was Ricci. He brought his booty back with him to Rome, intending to present it to Pope St Pius V as a trophy. But on his way he called in on St Philip, and as a result of that visit the poor Pope never received his gift. Instead, St Philip persuaded his friend to leave it with him, so that he could venerate it himself. Many years before, St John had actually appeared to St Philip while he was a young layman, in a vision that convinced him to spend the rest of his long life in Rome.

At first sight, St John and St Philip might not seem to have very much in common. The Baptist was a firebrand, with a formidable line in insults. When the religious hierarchy of his day came to see him baptizing he called them a “brood of vipers” to their faces. St Philip, by contrast, was always a model of meekness and respect before his religious superiors, even though the ecclesiastical culture of Rome when he began his apostolate was a byword for decadence. While there were hellfire and brimstone preachers who stood on the street corners decrying the depravities of the papal court, St Philip’s way was quite different. He was more like a fly-fisherman, who patiently caught souls one by one and reeled them in quite gently to the harbour of salvation. In the process he converted many prelates and cardinals to the way of holiness.

On the surface, then, St John the Baptist and St Philip might look like chalk and cheese. But on a deeper interior level, there is a very strong bond that unites them. When St John is assuring his own disciples that he is not the Christ, but is rather the one who has been sent to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, he explains to them: “The friend of the bridegroom, who waits and listens for him, is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn3:29-30).

In those words of St John, we recognize an intense joy and profound humility, and there is a clue to how humility and joy are intimately connected. St John is really the proto-Apostle of Christian joy. He leapt for joy in the womb when the Blessed Virgin, who was carrying Our Saviour in her own womb, visited his mother Elisabeth. Saint Philip Neri, meanwhile, is known the world over as the “Apostle of Joy”. And the Oratory that crystallized around St Philip in his rooms in Rome was a perfect school of Christian humility.

Those of us who take ourselves too seriously would be at risk if St Philip were to appear amongst us now. We would be at serious risk of being teased and made to look silly. St Philip had a perfect horror of self-aggrandisement. When he detected that a senior officer in the Swiss Guard was looking quite pleased with himself in his magnificent uniform during a papal ceremony, St Philip ran up to him in front of everybody and pulled on his beard. When a talented new priest in the Oratory preached brilliantly the first time he went into the pulpit, St Philip ordered him to preach the exact same sermon word for word every Sunday until further notice. As a result, the congregation would groan whenever he appeared and say to each other: “Here comes the father with only one sermon.”

At his death, St Philip’s friends complained that they had no honour left – their spiritual father had taken it all from them. But he always made sure that he was the first victim of his own irony. When a delegation of Polish dignitaries who had been sent by the Pope arrived at the Oratory in the hope of finding a living saint, they discovered St Philip having frivolous pamphlets read aloud to him in the sacristy, and he boasted that it was his spiritual reading.

There was an effervescent sense of fun and spontaneity in all of this. But it also had a serious purpose: “Always humble yourself and abase yourself in your own eyes and in the eyes of others” St Philip would say, “so that you can become great in God’s eyes.” In other words, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” That saying of St John the Baptist could have been engraved on St Philip’s heart. For Philip, humility was a prerequisite for human flourishing. He could not resist deflating pompous people, and this was because he wished to liberate them from the shackles of self-delusion so that they would be free to share in the joy of divine friendship that was the mainstay of his own life.

He must increase, and I must decrease. Those words sum up what Christian humility is all about. St Thomas Aquinas tells us that the word “humility” comes from the Latin humus, for earth. And if we look in Genesis, we shall see that God made Adam out of the dust of the earth. So to be humble is nothing more and nothing less than to live in reality. It is to acknowledge that we come from nothing, and all that we have is gift. Read a little further in Genesis, however, and we shall see how the gifts keep coming. It was God Himself who breathed the breath of life into Adam’s face. Read the Scriptures more thoroughly and we shall see that God also intends for us a Divine Likeness, which means ennoblement and a participation in His Own Life.

This means that there is nothing degrading about Christian humility. Rather it is the indispensible foundation for all of the great blessings that God wishes to build in our lives. Humility is the beginning of genuine self-awareness and of human greatness.

Most of us, at some stage in life, will be afflicted by a nagging sense of our own inadequacy – we certainly should be, unless we are monsters of self-satisfaction. The way that fallen human nature tends to deal with this is through pride. The proud man exalts himself in the hope that it will provide him with a sense of worth and inner peace. It never does. Even the pagan Greek playwrights knew that hubris was the precursor of tragedy. 

Humility liberates us from the insatiable appetite for honours and recognition. If we decrease, by placing Our Lord at the centre of our lives, and by honouring our neighbour over ourself, then the Life of Christ will increase within us to overflowing, just as it overflowed in St Philip, and in St John the Baptist.

May we decrease, so that the Life of Our Saviour is able to increase within us. And through the intercession of St Philip and St John the Baptist, may our joy be full in this life and, more importantly, in eternity.

September 2014 Letter from the Provost

A century since the beginning of what was called “the war to end war”, we are living in a world in which violence and conflict seem to be gaining ground every day. From the Middle East comes news of ancient Christian communities being wiped out. From Syria and northern Iraq come reports of Christians who refuse to renounce the Faith being crucified, reports of Christian women being sold in slavery to savages, reports of children being dismembered or buried alive because they have been baptised.

It would be quite easy for us to carry on oblivious to all of this, if we wanted to. The liberal media is so reluctant to draw our attention to the persecution of Christians that we could easily bury our heads in the sand and ignore the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ, if we wanted to.

But if it all seems so far away and even irrelevant to us, perhaps we should take note of a chilling warning that was issued recently to the west by the dispossessed Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul. Mosul is a town in northern Iraq, which until less than a month ago was home to one of the world’s most ancient Christian communities. Until a few weeks ago a form of the language spoken by Our Lord, Aramaic, was still to be heard in the streets of Mosul. It is no longer. For 1,600 years the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was offered continually in Mosul. It is no longer.

Archbishop Amel Shimoun Nona warned us that the forces that have wreaked murder and destruction in his diocese will soon rise up in our own western societies. He said this in such a direct and startling way that I am reluctant to repeat his words verbatim in The Oratory Parish Magazine for fear of being labelled a panic-monger. This prelate, however, is a shepherd who has been driven from his diocese. His cathedral is now a mosque, and those of his flock who have not been slaughtered, or forced to apostatise, have been put to flight. Surely we cannot dismiss what he has to say. His own suffering, and the horrors he has witnessed, give to his words a certain authority.

We might well feel that the values of liberal democracy that we hold dear are under threat. But look more closely at our liberal democracies, and at the sins and the crimes against God’s law that they currently facilitate in our once Christian Europe, and we shall probably have to admit that our liberal democracies have already sown the seeds of their own destruction.

The freedom and democracy that we so cherish cannot be taken for granted. They can only be sustained in a society which values and nurtures virtue, reason and discipline. When a liberal democracy legislates in favour of the killing of the most vulnerable – of the unborn, the sick and the elderly – then it has already signed its own death warrant. When legislation is enacted that goes against the very laws that God has inscribed in nature, then our society becomes ever more hollow, fragmented and vulnerable.

On the natural level, then, things are not looking so good for the future. And in all of this, the Church finds Herself under increasing pressure. Weakened by scandals and religious indifference and by the wounds of division within, it might seem that She is in no strong position to face the challenges that threaten harm to Her from without.

What gives us hope, however, is the promise made to St Peter by Our Lord: “You are Peter. And on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

If we glance at the history of the Church, we shall be amazed to see how She has already survived so many persecutions and crises. Civilisations have crumbled, and the Church has survived them, administering the same Seven Sacraments. Ideologies have risen and fallen on Her right and on Her left, and the Church persists, teaching the same Gospel that She always taught – a Gospel which is unchanging but always fresh and life –giving, because the word of God is unencumbered by ideological shackles and enlivened with the Holy Spirit. Persecutions rage and storm, and always the blood of the martyrs brings forth the green shoots of new life.

And all of this because of that divine guarantee that Our Lord gives to Peter: “The gates of Hell shall not prevail.”

That promise made to Peter has held good for all of Peter’s successors. And this has nothing to do with their personal virtues or weaknesses as incumbents of the See of Rome. Some popes have succeeded Peter magnificently, teaching the Faith as if they were divinely inspired. Others have been lacklustre. Some have been great saints, others notorious sinners. But always, Peter remains the rock of stability and the keystone of unity in the Church. The Faith remains the same and the Church continues to save, sometimes helped by the shepherds appointed to guard and guide the flock, sometimes in spite of them. All thanks to Our Lord’s guarantee of supernatural protection, made to His Bride the Church through His Vicar on earth.

The worst thing that we can do when we are under pressure, as individual Catholics, is to lose our nerve. We are disciples of the Prince of Peace, and if there is to be any true peace in the world, then it is down to us to be courageous and untiring in extending the reign of our Monarch. Only when the Prince of Peace is enthroned in every man’s heart on this planet will conflict be quelled.

Within a few weeks, a Synod of Bishops will open in Rome to discuss the family. Potentially this is a wonderful opportunity for bishops from all over the world to share their experiences and to enrich the spiritual and pastoral life of the Catholic faithful in our age, so strengthening the mission of the Church. At the same time there is pressure on this Synod, from the media and elsewhere, to change the teaching of the Church on issues such as the indissolubility of the sacred bond of Holy Matrimony.

Of course, this can never happen. If it did, it would mean that the Church had been lying to us about a matter of Faith and morals, and that promise made by Our Lord to Peter would turn out to be false. It would be blasphemous even to suggest such a thing. Nevertheless it seems likely that media commentary will generate much doctrinal and spiritual confusion amongst those who allow their understanding of the Faith to be moulded by reports from the television and the newspapers. Any perceived ambiguity and contradiction will be milked for everything it is worth. And the last thing the world needs in the current state of emergency is the decadence of a Church hobbled by dissent, confusion and disunity.

The Holy Father has asked us to make Sunday 28th September a special day of prayer for the Synod on the Family. Please make a note of that in your diaries. And perhaps it might be a good idea to fortify those prayers with some fasting on the preceding Friday

Let us not be Huffington Post Catholics or Sunday Times Catholics. Our Church has been founded on a rock. Pray for St Peter’s successor in these challenging times. Some pundits have built up such impossible expectations for the Synod of Bishops that disappointment on the popular level seems inevitable. Whether or not a pope is in the good books of the BBC or the world’s press, however, is neither here nor there. It is Peter’s God-given duty to feed the sheep with the pure undiluted milk of Christian doctrine in season and out and, if and when the time comes, to stretch out his own arms and give his own life for his flock. Please pray for our beloved Pope Francis, that God will guide him and inspire him. And pray for all of those Christians who suffer persecution today. Pray also that through some miracle of conversion their persecutors will open their hearts and embrace the rule of the Prince of Peace. Extremism is a dirty word. But we do need more extremism in this world, actually: conflict and violence will only be defeated when the religion of extreme love and extreme mercy reigns supreme.

August 2014 Letter from the Provost

If a Catholic priest or bishop in our age were to preach that there is no Zoroastrianism in Heaven, or Seventh Day Adventism or Hinduism or Anglicanism, I think we can imagine the reaction. The printing presses of the liberal media would probably explode.

But it is true that if we do manage to gain entry to Heaven – and one has to say ‘if’ because salvation is not something that anyone of us can take for granted – we shall not find religious pluralism or any type of denominational division. What we shall find is the One Mystical Body of Christ, with all of the Holy Angels and Saints united in one Body and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ at the Head. We shall find that the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church that we have known on earth has been purified, perfected and glorified – the Church Militant taken up and subsumed for eternity in the Church Triumphant.

We often hear that if religion is to have any place in modern society then we shall all have to acknowledge that all religions are equal. But for a Christian this is something that cannot really be true. It doesn’t wash. The reason for this is that Christianity makes mighty claims that no other religion has ever attempted to match. We don’t just say that our religion has been established by a remarkable and saintly messenger of God, who has come to teach us unattainable truths and to set us a unique example of integrity, self-sacrifice and goodness. Our religion has been established by one Who actually is God, and Who is Truth itself. Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is a Divine Person, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. And it is only because God took on our human flesh and died on the Cross for us that anyone is able to be saved. Our Lord is the one supreme Pontifex Who bridges the infinite chasm between man and God in His own Person.

This is not to say that those who have never had the Gospel preached to them, or never encountered credible witnesses to the Gospel, are beyond the scope of salvation. Certainly not. Yes, Christ has ordained that incorporation in His Mystical Body the Church is to be the means of man’s salvation. But His love and His grace are boundless. And the Church insists that there are reflections of Divine Truth in other religions. In so far as these truths pertain to salvation, however, She claims them as Her own. When a non-Christian dies, he will see with perfect clarity that Christ is God the Son. If he dies in the grace that is a prerequisite for entry into the eternal bliss of Heaven, he will see that Our Lord has been the source of his salvation all along, even if he never encountered a Christian or a Catholic in all of his life.

Hence the seriousness with which the Church has always taken the mission described by Our Lord to Peter after the miraculous catch of fish: “Henceforth you will catch men.” Ever since that commission, the Church that Christ founded on the Apostles has been fishing for souls in every age, and in every part of the globe that She can reach.

If you go to Rome on the feast of Ss Peter and Paul, you will find St Peter’s basilica festooned with fishing nets. That is a reminder that the Pope has a responsibility for souls on a universal scale. He and the bishops have been commissioned to work continuously to bring all souls in to the Barque of Peter. We must pray for them, because the prelude to the account of the miraculous catch of fish in the Gospel, in which Peter and his companions are presented as weary and disheartened after a whole night spent labouring without success, reminds us that on our own we can do nothing, and the human spirit easily grows weary and fails.

We too are called to be fishers of men. But rather than using the great trawling net that has been entrusted to the Successor of Peter, most of us will probably find that fishing with the line is so much more effective. We have to use friendship, kindness and example to draw souls in gently, reeling them in to the Barque of Peter with patience and great charity. And this can be far more effective than we ever imagine. Don’t be taken in by the lie that the world is becoming increasingly secularized. Great parts of the globe are, in fact, embracing Islam. And in the west, more and more people are happy to involve themselves in all sorts of spiritualism and New Age superstitions, even if it is fashionable to pooh-pooh ‘organized religion’.

This shows that there is a great thirst for spirituality, and that people do have a hunger for religion, whether they realize it or not.

Perhaps many of us who are converts to Catholicism were attracted because we were impressed and even amazed by the wonderful intellectual coherence that exists within the Catholic Faith. But we have to bear in mind that rational arguments hold very little sway with many or even most of our contemporaries today. They have been brought up in a culture of sentimentality, in which they have been encouraged to make decisions based on emotions and personal ‘intuition’. They may even feel threatened and repelled by logic. And it has to be admitted that, on their own, rational arguments for the Faith are like winter sunshine: they shed light, but they do not lend much warmth.

But even in this cult of sentimentality, our Faith actually has one distinct and powerful advantage. Christianity is the only religion that makes the extraordinary claim that ‘God IS love.’ And those words of St John open up an awe-inspiring vista into the very life of the Blessed Trinity, which is an eternal and infinite outpouring of self between Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

But it is not enough to talk about love. There is one thing that we can be sure that our contemporaries will demand from us as Catholics, and that is authenticity. We have to show that the reality of God’s love overflows from our hearts, in our conversation and in our actions. To be sure, authenticity is often judged today using the most shallow of criteria. The disciples of the cult of sentiment have an insatiable appetite for novelties, gestures and sound bites. Those of us who had an old fashioned upbringing would prefer when we give alms that our left hand should not know what our right is doing. If we are to have any hope of bringing souls into the Church in this age in which we live, however, then the Church has to be seen to be doing what, in former ages, She has always done in a less self conscious manner – reaching out to the needy, the sick and the abandoned. And if we are to succeed in bringing souls into the Barque of Peter, then we have to involve ourselves in this work of God, and not to be embarrassed to be seen doing good.

There is nothing arrogant in holding the conviction that the Church is true. Today there is a false notion of humility which says that it is meekness to play down our Faith. But our mission to bring souls into the Mystical Body of Christ is truly humble in the best sense, because it is carried out in obedience to our Saviour.