Welcome to the series of talks which were given by Fr Ashley during Lent in St Edmund’s Church. Each talk was followed by a Q&A discussion online via Zoom. Here you can watch a recording of each talk, view the slides, and read the text.
Tuesday 8 March: THE WAR IN UKRAINE AND CATHOLIC TEACHING – read/watch
Tuesday 15 March: WHAT IS A SYNOD? DIALOGUE AND LISTENING – read/watch
Tuesday 22 March: THE VISION OF POPE FRANCIS – read/watch
Tuesday 29 March: THE CHURCH’S WORSHIP IN HOLY WEEK – read/watch
Tuesday 5 April: THE EASTER VIGIL AND WHY IT MATTERS – read/watch
Ukraine and Catholic Teaching
I originally planned this Lent course to spend three sessions on the synodal process, in response to what we have been doing in recent months, with the remaining two to help give people some formation about Holy Week (in response to some requests about three years ago). However the war in Ukraine has created a crisis for the Catholic Church as it has for everyone else, so it seemed right to spend one evening on that, especially as we have in Lent talks etc over the years looked at various questions to do with war and peace in relation to Iraq, Afghanistan and other issues.
A great deal is being written and said about President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine since 24 February, and I wrote a brief piece for the newsletter about some of the issues the weekend before last. I don’t want to duplicate what has been said elsewhere or suggest that I know much about some of the political issues: I simply want to focus on Catholic teaching about war, international relations, the support of refugees and the conduct of public and political life: as these are vast subjects we will only begin to look at them this evening. As you know I run the only degree in Catholic Social Teaching in the UK and Ireland at St Mary’s University, where we cover these issues as well – and some students may be joining us through livestream and on Zoom. Those who teach in Catholic universities worldwide are trying to show support and solidarity and I was in an international Zoom meeting last Friday which included two academics from the Ukraine Catholic University based in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv (= Polish Lvov, Austrian Lemberg). We heard very moving accounts from them.
The war is dominating news media and I suppose some people who go to church might seek here some sort of escape from the war, as from other issues in the world. This isn’t an option for committed Catholics, as we hold that our faith is about the whole of life – the God whom we worship has revealed a lot to us about how we should live, and that includes killing people and bombing towns. In addition there is an important religious dimension to this war, often neglected in the media, and that is something all Catholic should know something about….
I am going to try and keep to arguments about conduct; this isn’t a sermon and there are plenty of other people able to express moral outrage. It also goes without saying that we should all be supporting the various initiatives in this country aimed at supporting both people in Ukraine and those fleeing the country.
Catholic teaching and the key issue
In terms of basic teachings I think there are various points to make:
- The actions of the Russian Federation are utterly at odds with Christian teachings about war – not only the Just War doctrine which has been important in western Christianity, but the whole body of Christian teaching, including that of the Orthodox Church. This is an unprovoked war of aggression; the claims of the Putin government about attacks on Russian speakers in Ukraine, or that the country is run by fascists or neo-Nazis, are demonstrably false. The Russian government is actively lying to its own people and shutting off voices of dissent in countless ways. I find it incomprehensible that the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church does not appear to recognise this. Moreover the Russian government is acting in defiance of international law and treaties to which it is a signature, such as the Charter of the United Nations.
- Moreover there is growing evidence that the way in which the Russian forces are fighting the war (jus in bello) contradict Christian teachings, particularly in terms of the type of weapons being used and the targeting of civilians (in spite of official denials).
- The Catholic Church, unlike the government of the United States, supports the work of international courts to try those accused of war crimes and crimes against universal human rights. Those responsible for this war need to be tried, even in their absence. The case for doing this would be stronger if the USA and NATO had not been guilty in the past of similar crimes. International law as understood by the Church severely curtails notions of national sovereignty, a moral truth no longer really accepted by the government of this country or the Conservative party.
- Christian tradition, by and large, has affirmed the right to self-defence. So instinctively we tend to applaud the clear courage of the Ukrainian armed forces and civilians; this right is also affirmed in the UN Charter and other international agreements. In the Catechism and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church this right is seen as a duty, bound up with the obligation to protect and defend the innocent. The Compendium commends those who serve in armed forces in self-defence of their countries. However the Christian tradition does not see it is as an absolute right;. The reason it is not absolute is that Christian teaching does not sanction the use of force if the action is futile; that is, an action which has little or no chance of success (‘There must be serious prospects of success’, Compendium 500). I hope you can see now how difficult this issue is. We want to be able to support and defend the men, women and children who are victims of cruelty and violence; moreover this wish accords with much of how we have been brought up in terms of our own history, particularly with regard to the Second World War. We understand how this is seen as a duty. On the other hand it does mean that in terms of our teaching some countries in that war who chose not to carry on fighting the armies of the Third Reich after they were invaded (Denmark, for example) were acting in accordance with Christian teaching. It is made more complicated still by the judgment we need to try and make with regard to futility. When the Russians invaded on 24 February it might have been easier to criticise acts of self-defence because it might have looked then as if the Russians, because of their overwhelming military superiority, would win a quick victory: this is certainly what the Russians thought, and Putin’s strategy may have depended on this. The extent of opposition to the invasion has certainly weakened the ‘futility’ argument, but in the long term it still seems to be the natural interpretation of our tradition, however painful this is for the Ukrainians, and painful for us to say to them. It is to do with the important moral concept, crucial in our tradition about war, of proportionality. Can we really affirm that an attempt to defend national independence and the rights people enjoy in a democracy, are really worth immense civilian casualties? For this reason I was uneasy when The Tablet reported last weekend that at the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in the Ukrainian cathedral here in London, at which our own archbishop preached a very moving homily, there were a lot of collecting boxes for money to buy weapons. Now for Christians who are absolute pacifists (such as the Catholic Worker movement) the issue is clear, if painful; for others it is more nuanced because we have to make a prudential judgment about whether something is in the long term futile or not. Incidentally the Church’s teaching documents affirm the value of the pacifist position and insists that the rights of conscientious objectors are protected. To sum up, I think this question is at least for me undecided and not entirely clear at the moment; this means we should be very cautious about encouraging the Ukrainians to fight back.
- Christian teaching about the unacceptability of war is closely linked to what we teach about the conduct of international relations, as we have often reflected in talks given in this parish. Sharing sovereignty, cooperation, solidarity, negotiations, diplomacy, trying to listen to others: these are ‘goods’, they are virtuous ways for countries to act. When these things have been valued the world becomes a less violent place. It is interesting that Putin has unintentionally brought about unity among his opponents – first, among the people of Ukraine, including Russian-speakers (like the President), and second, among the western nations, particularly the European Union which has since its inception been based on the principles outlined above. We see ever more clearly the need for a united Europe, which the Catholic Church has affirmed for many years – that’s why Ukraine should become a member of the EU as soon as possible. However as I have indicated before I don’t think you can say the same about NATO as far as Catholic teaching is concerned. While it certainly served as a defensive alliance when it was set up, what we teach about dialogue and commitment to peace was infringed in the years following the fall of Communism in 1989/1990; opportunities were missed, and its expansion into Eastern Europe has been a propaganda gift to Putin and his supporters. None of this justifies his actions, nor does it make Russia and NATO morally equivalent now, but it is something we should be open about, and Western leaders should admit their mistakes. Moreover there is a serious problem from a Christian point of view: NATO is an alliance committed to the threat to use nuclear weapons. The Catholic Church has condemned unequivocally the nuclear deterrent, overlooked by so many Catholic politicians: while I can see why countries like Poland value NATO, overall it is a very flawed force in the world, and bears some responsibility (but not the primary one) for where we are now. Benedict XVI and Francis have both called for international organisations to be strengthened, given real teeth – but they should be genuine bodies rather than military alliances. The problem, of course, is that giving the UN greater power demands right attitudes on the part of its most important members, who have a veto in the Security Council. Bodies like the UN and the EU are only as strong and responsible as their members, but the principle of cooperation remains important
- The world’s reactions to refugees is already central to our engagement with this conflict, and this is likely to become a more critical issue in the next few months. In his last encyclical Fratelli Tutti, which we looked at week by week last Lent, Pope Francis stressed how the migrant, the refugee, is not only central to how we understand love in the world, but also a model for the pilgrim Church. Well over a million Ukrainians have left the country in the last two weeks; all over this country large amounts of money and other items have been raised to help them. Three observations: (a) at least in the Eastern European countries in the European Union this massive migration has challenged and changed attitudes towards refugees; past hostility has been replaced by great generosity. (b) While this is welcome it’s unfortunately probably the case that there shift is not because people have suddenly started listening to the pope’s teaching; rather, it is probably because the Ukrainians are Europeans, and fellow past victims of Russian / Soviet domination. An important article at the weekend (Malik) pointed out that what has happened must not fuel a sense of European superiority or exceptionalism. The Russians behaved in the same sort of way towards Muslims in Chechnya and Syria. (c) It has exposed the anti-migrant policies of the Conservative party: while the Johnson government has changed its policies repeatedly in response to public opinion, in terms of the generosity which Christian teaching calls for we are lagging seriously behind EU countries; this is, of course, what Brexit was and is all about. This is what some of you voted for in the 2016 referendum.
- One of the bad things which happens when a war breaks out, even if many countries are not directly involved, is that normal political life either comes to an end or is sidelined. Political leaders are felt to have more important things to worry about than home affairs; moreover we are often bombarded with bogus calls for national unity. The best example in modern times was the postponement of the enactment of Irish home rule legislation in 1914 when the First World War broke out. Wars can be a very convenient distraction for politicians troubled by problems at home. Since the Catholic Church stresses both the value of the political vocation and the importance of high standards in public life in relation to truth-telling, accountability, transparency and the avoidance of corruption, then this issue matters for us. As it happens, with the possible exception of the President of Ukraine, most national leaders engaged in this crisis face serious domestic political problems (Putin himself, Johnson, Biden, Macron, with the new German Chancellor needing to prove himself). Catholics should not be taken in by this. If a political leader is shown to be a self-seeking liar one month, he does not cease to be the next month if there is an international crisis. His character flaws and sins remain. Moreover the moves being taken against very rich Russians who have (with the encouragement of politicians from all parties, but the Conservative party above all) bought up much of London, have exposed the extent to which our political life has been corrupted to an alarming degree. The financial and political support given by supporters of President Putin to the Brexit campaign and the Conservative party are not accidental; they are also in line with how Putin’s aggressive policies accord with the political Far Right all over the world and former President Donald Trump and his supporters in the US in particular (and Trump still enjoys considerable support among American Catholics). The condemnations of Putin by the Prime Minister and other leading politicians ring rather hollow; again, the Church should not be afraid to point this out.
- As you know the next two sessions in this programme are about the synodal process. Perhaps it is easy to think that this process of dialogue and reflection is a bit of a luxury as we come (perhaps) out of a pandemic and face this terrible war in Ukraine. But actually what the Holy Father is calling for is closely bound up with how we should respond to this war. What the pope has said, and if you read his biographies you can see how he has tried to live this out throughout his ministry as a priest and a bishop, is that the need for dialogue and listening is inescapable. You don’t stop, however difficult; you don’t give up. What we teach about war only being ever acceptable as a last resort, along with other strict conditions, mean that we have to take negotiation and diplomacy seriously. There have to be serious negotiations now, without preconditions. We might well distrust Putin, for very good reasons, but we still have to negotiate. And negotiations demand, usually, concessions and compromises. You would think that people in the UK and Ireland would know this above all because of the history of Northern Ireland and the peace process; what the pope says is also in line with the unsuccessful attempts of his predecessor Benedict XV in the First World War to get people to negotiate without preconditions. My anxiety, in relation to Catholic teaching, is that NATO leaders may not be encouraging the Ukrainians to negotiate.
These eight issues seem to me to be central to how as Catholics we have to respond to this serious international crisis; of course there are others and much more to be said. What we need to do is to pray for the fighting to cease.
I would recommend good sources of information in Catholic media, particularly the blog Independent Catholic News and The Tablet, The Pastoral Review and the American Jesuit journal America; also the websites of the Bishops Conference (www.cbcew.org.uk) and Pax Christi (www.paxchristi.org.uk).
What is a synod? Dialogue and listening
Purpose of talks this evening and next week
This evening and next Tuesday we plan to think about the synodal pathway launched by Pope Francis last autumn. This evening will be look at the background and meaning of synods; next week we will focus on the Holy Father’s vision for the process as a source of guidance and inspiration for us. I won’t duplicate what is in the material from the pope and our own as this is easily accessed. I will quote now an extract from our archbishop’s Pastoral from October last year (https:// archbishopjohnwilson.com/2021/10/17/archdiocese-of-southwark-pastoral-letter-for-the-opening-ofthe-synod/) In this parish for the ‘process’ your synodal team gave you excellent material in encouraging you to take part in the meetings and the questionnaires, and I don’t want to duplicate that either: my talks are a supplement to this, as aids to help us in further reflection.
What is a synod?
The word ‘synod’ is used in Christianity to describe a council or gathering. It brings together the Greek words for ‘with’ (syn) and road or path (hodos): so in a synod people are seen as being on a pathway together. In the history of the Church the word is more or less interchangeable with the word ‘Council’. I say more or less because there are some distinctions. The word ‘Council’ is usually employed for Councils of the whole Catholic Church, using the adjective ‘Ecumenical’ (meaning here ‘of the whole world’, not different churches). For Catholics there have been 21 such councils; Eastern Orthodox and (in theory) Anglican and Protestant Christians only acknowledge as authoritative the first seven of these (down to the Second Council of Nicaea in the eight century. The term ‘synod’ usually means historically something more local rather than universal, though sometimes it will be applied to worldwide council. Sometimes local synods have been important and controversial – such as the Synod of Pistoia in Italy in 1786 which, under pressure from the local State, sought to reform radically the local Catholic Church. Usually local synods have been all the bishops in a given area.
Different things in different churches
To add to the confusion the word has been and is used differently in different denominations. For the Russian Orthodox Church, the ‘Holy Synod’ was simply the body which ran the Church from the time of Tsar Peter the Great until the Russian Revolution, a sort of government ministry (in place of the Patriarch).
In the Church of England, there are now synods at three different levels in the Church: the General Synod, diocesan synods and deanery synods. Where these differ from earlier synods in the churches is that laypeople are fully voting members (bishops, clergy and laypeople are grouped in separate ‘houses’). As the Church of England is established by law, these bodies are ultimately regulated by Parliament, although they also exist in other Anglican churches which are not ‘established’ (that is all the rest). Clergy and laypeople in these bodies are elected indirectly. In the Anglican Communion synodical structures have significantly changed the way the communion is run, qualifying in this country the power of Parliament over the church and the powers of bishops; it is self-consciously democratic, and in some places (such as the American Episcopal Church) this has reflected State democratic structures very closely.
Synods in the Catholic Church
In the Catholic Church the word is now used in three different ways: (i) in the Eastern Catholic Churches (e.g. Ukraine), it simply means the assembly of bishops in a local Church (so it is the same as our Bishops Conferences), (ii) a synod for a diocese: a ‘one-off’ event set up by the bishop. This is described in Canon Law as an ‘assembly of selected priests and other members of Christ’s faithful.’ There is a complicated system of defining who takes part and so on; but these events are comparatively rare: there was one in the Archdiocese of Liverpool recently as part of the overall synodal process. (iii) Synods of Bishops. This structure was set up after Vatican II, being assemblies of bishops set up by the pope, either worldwide to consider a specific issue (the Family or Synodality itself), or local (e.g. Africa, the Amazon).
There is to be a Synod of Bishops on synodality to take place in 2023; the process we have been taking part in is seen as an essential part of the preparation for this assembly. While there have been smaller consultative exercises in advance of other groupings (most notably in before the Synod of the Amazon in South America) the worldwide exercise we have been part of is unprecedented and potentially far-reaching. Historically in the Catholic Church, and until recently in all churches, bishops in particular were seen as the participants in synods: they did not need to consult anyone else, and particularly not those who were not clergy. Part of what we believe is that bishops are seen as the successors of the apostles, taking from them the authority to lead the Church in the name of Christ. For most of the history of the Church, this concept of leadership has been seen in largely monarchical terms: it is clear that the model of leadership entailed in the process the pope has started is different. It is still leadership – and we are not moving towards an Anglican model of synodical government – but a leadership which should be more collaborative and consultative.
In the process, we have stressed that people need to be given a voice: so, at least in this parish, no topic was ‘off limits.’ This was rather unsettling, I think, for many, who thought that some things couldn’t be discussed. Again, this is largely unprecedented. Of course, some things can’t be changed at a local level (and arguably, some things not at any level), but you have been given the freedom to say or write what you think. Of course for many this will only make sense if people are listened to.
Theology of dialogue
At this stage I want us to think a bit about why this process should matter – not simply if we want to change things, but because of what it says about our beliefs about one another as baptised followers of Jesus Christ. I think there are three sets of considerations.
In the Creed on Sundays we say ‘I believe in one, Holy and Catholic Church.’ We join that Church when we are baptised; and we believe that Our Lord wants his followers to live together in unity. We won’t always agreed with each other; we won’t always even like each other; but we are fellow members of the Body of Christ. It is easy for the Church to be damaged by divisions, and here I don’t mean divisions between us and other Christians, but divisions within the Roman Catholic Church, divisions which are very serious in some places (e.g. the United States). Such disunity not only saddens Our Lord’s heart; it impairs our witness and mission very badly, at a time when we face very serious challenges. Moreover we don’t foster unity if we avoid some subjects, either because we don’t want to think about them ourselves or because we’re worried about offending or upsetting those who may disagree with us. Of course to raise difficult issues may initially look as if it in not fostering unity – but only if you don’t get the process right.
(ii) Dignity of the person
If we are engaged properly in dialogue with another person, we are showing respect for his or her dignity as a person. Every human being is created in the image of God, with inalienable rights and a dignity which can’t be taken away; if we take seriously the Lord’s command to love our enemies, which we heard as a Sunday gospel a few weeks ago, then this is even true of our foes. We should have a way of talking to others and listening to them which reflects our faith, what makes us different. This is how God works in us. So the Second Eucharistic Prayers for Reconciliation puts it like this (quote from https://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/RM3-EPR1-2.htm).
So in a truly synodal way of dialogue we affirm the goodness of God in creation by acknowledging a relationship with the other person: a relationship which should be built on co-operation, openness, making sacrifices, not putting ourselves first, being willing to make concessions, listening….this is why I said last week that there is a link between the reconciliation the Church is seeking to end this terrible war in Ukraine and the whole synodal path initiated by the pope. So often people in the world who want to be confrontational, even if this seems justified in the face of aggression, don’t really understand the synodal process either. Indeed in the Church, those who don’t acknowledge the ways in which Catholic teaching has moved in relation to war and peace are also those who disparage the Holy Father and what he is trying to do.
(iii) Dialogue and God’s relationship with us
The first Council of the Church is described in Acts chapter 15 (quote vv 1-4) It had to address the difficult and divisive issue of whether non-Jews who wanted to be Christians should become Jews first (by being circumcised if they were male, and observing Jewish dietary laws). We know how this divided the apostles themselves. The process of dialogue put before us is rooted in prayer to the Holy Spirit, for guidance; so in any Christian gathering (like our session this evening) we try to begin by asking the Spirit for that same guidance; so, for examples, do cardinals when they meet to elect a new pope. We believe that the Spirit is present in the Church, in lots of different ways; he shows his presence through his guidance. Of course in terms of much decision-making this doesn’t mean mistakes aren’t made, though it does mean that in terms of the most important things which the Church believes it is free from error. And this means that we shouldn’t be afraid of the process of discussion and dialogue. The process is also meant to reflect God’s relationship with us, and I will say more about this next week as it was forcibly pointed out over Christmas by the Holy Father, who described the Incarnation, the coming of God among us at Christmas, as an act of dialogue between God and us.
Implications for decision-making….
In the synodal process so far, we have emphasised the need for the exercise to be completely open and transparent. Our excellent team not only summarised the responses in the newsletter; they have made available to all of you an excellent and comprehensive report, a model for good practice in the diocese (sadly in many parishes this exercise hasn’t been taken seriously). This is not simply a convenient administrative decision; we know that in the Church, as in any body, where discussions or decision-making has not been open or transparent, terrible things have happened. The child abuse scandal in the Church, which has not, worldwide, run its course, has shown again and again, as Deacon Séan has often (and courageously) shown in newsletter articles, the damage done when decisions are made by closed clerical elites. Pope Francis has acknowledged this too, even in relation to mistaken decisions to which he has been party (particularly in South America). It affects all of us – in dioceses, in Catholic schools and universities, in religious orders and congregations, in Catholic charities, and in parishes.
It is important that all of us listen to young Catholics, and indeed how the Church strengthens its work with young people is a big theme in the feedback we have had from you. I want to read two extracts from pieces written recently by young Catholic women in the new quarterly journal Inspire published by the The Tablet (the first by Stephanie MacGillivray, who works for Caritas Internationalis in Rome, and the second by our parishioner Ruth McConkey – accessible via https://www.thetablet.co.uk/inspire/20/1935/welcome-to-inspire-the-international-catholic-quarterly-for-youngadults).
This brings me to my most important point really. The process we have been engaged in is not simply about giving the bishops data for their discussion next year. It is meant to be the beginning of a process, the beginning of a new way of being the Church, demanding better and more transparent discussions and decision-making: indeed in our synod document the call for more transparency in terms of how the parish is run comes through very clearly. It boils down to our theology of creation. If God had wanted to create a world of robots, he would have created a world of robots. Instead he made human beings in his image with intelligence and feelings, men and women with the capacity to choose to do good or to do evil. He is not a sergeant major in a parade ground; he doesn’t have us under his thumb. We are invited to be in a relationship of love with him, grounded in the truth revealed in Jesus, continued in the life of the Church; but he gives us the freedom to choose that path of love – and of course the freedom to walk away. We put before all our brothers and sisters in the world the person of Jesus Christ who offers true life to them; but we only do that effectively if we live among ourselves in love and mutual respect, not domination or authoritarianism. In every age of Christianity we have the chance to renew our being part of the Church, our efforts to share this exciting and life-giving truth; in the synodal pathway we have the opportunity to do this in our own age and in our own parish.
The Vision of Pope Francis
I think I have remarked before that the teaching ministry of the Holy Father, which is a bit of a roller coaster, has in my view rendered out of date existing books and programmes in pastoral ministry, renewal and evangelisation. It is difficult to keep up: only last week, marking St Joseph’s day on Saturday, a new letter to priests appeared, reflecting closely Pope Francis’ teaching, which I suspect many of us haven’t had time to read yet. Lent is about constant renewal and conversion of heart, and this is what it is about.
The purpose of this talk is to look at the synodal process and pathway in the context of the teachings and ministry of Pope Francis, Jorge Maria Bergoglio. This is important because this really is a case of ‘the medium is the message.’ The ways in which he has asked us to join in the preparation for the Synod of Bishops in 2023 are central to what the synod is about, and key to how we want to renew and reform the Church. Moreover, people in the Church who don’t like the process, who are filled with fearfulness and suspicion, are people who haven’t really paid attention to what the pope has been saying; but they don’t like him anyway. As I said last week, this process – and we’re only at the beginning – is a challenge to ways of working in the Church which are authoritarian, clericalist (and Deacon Séan has written another good piece about this in the latest newsletter), unaccountable, contemptuous of laypeople (particularly women), and self-seeking. These vices will only cease to mar the image of Christ in the Church if we change the way we work, the way we are.
Dialogue in Fratelli Tutti
A year ago we spent some time in Lent looking at the Holy Father’s letter from October 2020, Fratelli Tutti. Chapter 6 of the letter begins with these words:
‘Approaching, speaking, listening, looking at, coming to know and understand one another, and to find common ground: all these things are summed up in the one word “dialogue”. If we want to encounter and help one another, we have to dialogue. There is no need for me to stress the benefits of dialogue. I have only to think of what our world would be like without the patient dialogue of the many generous persons who keep families and communities together. Unlike disagreement and conflict, persistent and courageous dialogue does not make headlines, but quietly helps the world to live much better than we imagine’. (198)
The letter was written about social friendship in the world, not to address governance in the Church; nor is it about Ukraine. But in relation to the Church, and to the international situation at the moment, these words say so much. This paragraph isn’t a dry piece of academic writing: there is real passion in the pope’s words. He says that dialogue which does exist in the world, and there isn’t enough of it, ‘helps the world to live much better than we imagine.’ This must mean the same for the Church: dialogue, which is what the synodal process is about, can help the Church ‘live much better than we imagine.’ It is rather obvious really: through dialogue we can get to know each other better; this might mean that, even if continue to disagree with someone, we may know them better, we may be able to understand them. Incidentally, a challenge post-pandemic (and at least here I am not sure we are ‘post’ yet, with two members of our clergy team with Covid at the moment) is that with so little normal parish social contact having happened in the last two years, we need in many ways to get to know each other again.
As I have said every week, this process, sooner or later, will be the only way to end this terrible war: one side is not going to ‘win’. In relation to the war a new initiative for Ukrainian students has been launched by St Mary’s University (https://www.stmarys.ac.uk/news/2022/03/ukraine-scholarships? fbclid=IwAR3jlSYYjyOKOtc_Zjkn8Se6Qh6ob1a60iGPzzG4p7aS1jmsS-RtNdPNOU8)
In so many situations it is so much easier not to do this – and I am probably worse than most. I like to take decisions quickly, and if I am in a position of leadership to get on with implementing the decision as quickly as possible. Dialogue and listening, if we do them seriously, take time; for many of us time is at a premium; we don’t feel we have much of it. So Fratelli Tutti is for the whole Church, as well as for a world in which friendship is in short supply. Apart from the letter to priests I mentioned, only in the last few days the pope has drastically reformed the running of the curia, the ‘civil service’ which runs the Holy See: apart from reorganising departments (and what he’s done is significant, but for another time), he’s opened up the jobs to any baptised Catholic, including women. That means something: it’s not simply to improve the pool from which you draw people, or to make priests in the curia go and do things other than office jobs. It is about changing the Church, from top to bottom.
The earlier ministry of Jorge Bergoglio
Francis is now in the tenth year of his pontificate (a word, incidentally, which doesn’t simply mean ‘ministry of a pope / bishop’, but ‘bridge building’). What he says about synodality, and dialogue, didn’t suddenly start in 2020, or indeed in 2013 when he was elected pope. I would recommend, as I have done before, that if you have a chance you read the books about Francis by Austen Ivereigh and Christopher Lamb. Their research on the Holy Father is very thorough, and their analysis of him and of the problems he faces in the Church is faultless. I can’t cover this evening all of what they tell us, but I will try and pinpoint some important facts. Context is always important; the background of the pope tells us about him, as is true of all of us.
Jorge Bergoglio was born in Argentina to parents who were both of Italian background. His paternal grandmother Rosa was a great influence on him; in the 1920s in Asti near Milan, she had been active in the organisation known as Catholic Action in the years after the Fascists under Mussolini came to power. Ivereigh writes:
‘Rosa became on the outstanding leaders of the women’s branch. She appears various times in the town’s only newspaper….twice a week she gave marriage preparation classes to women in the San Martino church, and wrote popular pamphlets. Her oratory and courage made her a target, who did not like women imitating men. They heckled and cajoled her, one time shutting down the fall where she was due to speak. Unable to gain entry, she instead made her speech in the street, standing on a table.’ (Wounded Shepherd pp. 12-13; other references are all from this excellent book)
This is a remarkable picture: agitation, discussion, a woman being assertive, a woman being bullied by other people. Lots of people, including women, worked like Rosa Vassallo Bergoglio for people in the 1920s; but it was not how the leadership of the Catholic Church worked. It’s not how the leadership of the Catholic Church works now.
Secondly, when the young Jorge Bergoglio decided to become a priest in the late 1950s he was influenced by and attracted to religious orders. One of his early mentors was a Salesian priest (the same order as some of the sisters in our own parish), and he entered the Jesuits. Being a diocesan priest I don’t know much about religious orders and congregations, but I do know that in most cases at all levels discussion and dialogue are important as ways of reaching a consensus, of making decisions. For him as a Jesuit there’s another factor: Jesuit spirituality is inspired by their founder, St Ignatius Loyola, and his way of encouraging people to reflect on the Scriptures as a way of helping with decision-making: the classic way would be on an intensive retreat. Ignatius invites people to imagine that they are present at a scene in the Bible. He invites us to ask questions about the scene, to ask ourselves how we feel, to be imaginative. In the process of ‘Spiritual Exercises’ you’re encouraged to ask questions, to engage in dialogue to bring about clarity. It’s a demanding model; it’s not quick or easy. It tells us something about the pope and how we wants us to be. Hopefully in our parish as we progress along the synodal path we will be able to learn from our Religious congregations here.
Two examples: Aparecida and Amoris Laetitia
There are countless examples from the life of Bergoglio; but I want to refer to two – one from his time as a senior cardinal in South America, and the other from earlier in his ministry as pope.
As some of you may know one of the most exciting things to have happened in the life of the Church since the late 1960s is the Latin American movement known as Liberation Theology. Rooted in the Bible, this theological movement did a great deal to empower the poorest people in the continent, to seek liberation from structures of sin in society, from systematic oppression. A characteristic of the movement is a series of big assemblies of Latin American bishops (the CELAM assemblies), beginning at Medellin in Columbia in 1968. The documents from these assemblies, reflecting the life of the poor, are major Catholic teaching material. For over fifteen years from the early 1990s no assembly met, but in 2007 bishops gathered again in the city of Aparecida in Brazil, with the blessing and support of Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was a leading figure in the Latin American church; he played a very big part in the final teaching document from the assembly. Ivereigh puts it like this:
‘Aparacida saw Christianity’s loss of cultural and political power as an opportunity to recover the gratuity of God’s grace. Rather than defining itself as antiglobalisation, it sought a globalisation of solidarity’. (154)
We’re told that Bergoglio got the bishops and others to agree on the final documents through constant discussions, insisting that people should carry on talking until they found common ground (the Latin American Church is as polarised as others). What is also important is the the assembly in 2007 didn’t just issue a document: it laid down plans for dioceses to implement pastoral plans to renew their life. This offers a vision for all of us
At Aparacida the bishops had noted how the Christian Church came together in a…context of urban pluralism, which it made use of to grow. It wasn’t, at the time, a powerful civic institution seeking influence in the circles of power; Christ’s followers were often hounded and persecuted…the Christians’ “gaze of faith” allowed them to see God alive in his people, especially on the margins, and they went on to meet him there.’ (155-156)
So when in the responses you made in the synodal pathway you wrote or spoke about the Church’s responsibility to the marginalised, to be inclusive, you were in accord with the vision in Brazil back then. Not only that; some of you wrote about about opening up the Church, at new ways of enabling this great building become part of the Church’s mission. So again:
‘One important idea is santuarizar la parroquias, as one of Bergoglio’s sticky neologisms puts it: to have parishes take lessons from the shrines. The city’s actuaries are open all hours, take people as they come, and are down-to-earth.’ (156)
As I understand it these urban shrines, like sanctuaries such as Lourdes or Walsingham, are centres of special popular devotion. The churches and shrine buildings are open all the time, with teams available to help people in lots of different ways. This model of dialogue and discussion renews the Church’s mission: how we make this church more available to people in so much need in our society, is one of our challenges where the pope has so much to teach us as we try to digest the feedback you gave us. Before the pandemic, nearly three years ago, we worked hard to have more doors open in the building and after all the restrictions of the last two years we need to restart that approach.
The second example is more recent from Francis’ ministry as pope, from the Synod on the family in Rome in October 2015. This synod came together to look at problems facing families in terms of Catholic teaching. One of the key issues (though not the only one), always a point of division and disagreement, was how the Church should support divorced people; there was a lot of polarisation and division. The eventual letter from the pope in response to the synod, known as Amoris Laetitia, was an attempt to move the Church’s response in a more pastorally sensitive direction, and has attracted controversy. But what’s important now is what the pope said at the beginning of the synod:
‘Francis stressed that what mattered was not negotiating an agreement like a parliament but walking together “to read reality with the eyes of faith and with the heart of God”. The synod, he reminded them was “a protected space in which the Church experiences the action of the Holy Spirit”, one that called for “apostolic courage, gospel humility and trusting prayer.”’ (269)
This is not all sweetness and light. Ivereigh describes how Francis took on conservatives; he’s not afraid of being critical. Being open to the Holy Spirit, being open to one another, can disarm a partisan atmosphere; but it means having the courage to criticise openly, not conspire behind people’s backs. Having said that the Holy Father has continued to be undermined by right wing Catholics, particularly those in the United States backed up with large amounts of money. One anecdote quoted by Ivereigh concerns our own Cardinal Nichols:
‘When Cardinal Nichols asked the English language group he chaired to speak about their own families, it “totally transformed” the discussion. “Suddenly we realised that every bit of the saga of family living was in the room’” (271)
The bishops in the group all came from families; the cardinal got them to take about them rather than doctrinal statements.
Again, the method, the medium, is the message.
Next week we try to root all we have been saying in how, strengthened by the process of dialogue and renewal, the Church will try and enter into the Lord’s sufferings, death and resurrection in Holy Week. I hope the little we have looked at this evening helps us see how Pope Francis’ vision is a constant source of strength and inspiration: thank God in your prayers that he has been given to us as pope, and pray for him.
The Church’s Worship in Holy Week
In discussions after the second and third talks in our programme people have referred to the Second Vatican Council, which did so much to renew the life of the Catholic Church, meeting from 1962 until 1965. The first teaching document which the council produced was on liturgy, known by its Latin title Sacrosanctum Concilium: the bishops at the council were clear that before you renew and reform anything else in the Church, you have to make a start with worship. Worship defines the disciples of Jesus Christ; moreover as Catholics believe that we truly become the Church when we come together to celebrate the Eucharist, the Mass. As it happens for most Catholics in the world the most obvious change which resulted from Vatican II has been the changes in the Mass – Mass celebrated in the local language rather than Latin, Mass celebrated by the priest facing the people rather than with his back to them, and Mass celebrated with more and longer readings from the Bible – which are what they would associate with Vatican II, even though it did so much more. The Vatican II document didn’t change the Church’s liturgy itself – this was done by the pope and a commission set up by him in the years to 1970 – but it set out the basic principles: and one of them was that the liturgy needed to be reformed and renewed. Another was that everyone present at Mass should actively participate in the Mass; they should not be passive spectators. It is just over two years since the first lockdown in this country. For much of this time, especially in the early months, that whole notion of active participation was seriously impaired, for good health and safety reasons, and at times almost completely disappeared. Even now a great deal is not back to normal, for good reasons: we don’t have many altar servers, we don’t physically exchange the sign of peace, the Holy water stoups are empty and people do not receive Holy Communion from the chalice.
It follows that any renewal process like the synodal pathway, which we have looked at, should also involve reflection about how we worship in the Catholic Church. The most important worship in the life of the Church is what we will be doing in a fortnight’s time: Holy Week and Easter. This period is marked by special acts of worship, some unlike what we do the rest of the year; while some of us have been attending these for many years and know them well, others are less familiar and many may not know the meaning and history of some of what we do. Moreover we need a ‘refresher’: two years ago Fr Steve and Fr Simplicio, with our seminarian Joseph hiding out of sight, enacted shortened forms of the rites in a locked church, livestreamed as all churches were closed in this country; last year we were allowed to celebrate in public, but with restrictions on numbers and time; many normal parts of the rites didn’t happen. Even this year things will not be back to normal. One thing which is always important in a parish is the need for formation and education and this is very true of liturgy: it is never true of the Church, as was notoriously said by government minister Michael Gove in 2016, that ‘we have no need of experts’. While I am not that much of an expert in liturgy I do teach it to diaconate students and seminarians.
In St Edmund’s liturgical worship has always been done well and taken seriously; some of this may be because some years ago Monsignor Peter Strand was a specialist in liturgy. Holy Week is also important because the changes in liturgy brought in by Vatican II didn’t happen as bolt out of the blue, but began some years earlier in 1950 under Pope Pius XII. This was when the ceremonies of the Easter Vigil were reformed, followed in 1955 by the rites for the rest of Holy Week. All this happened after the celebration of Mass in the evening was permitted during and after the Second World War, for the first time for centuries. These reforms were extensive and really began the whole process of changes in the liturgy.
In the Holy Week rites we celebrate the events of our redemption brought about by the death and resurrection of Our Lord; moreover we enter into and participate in that narrative: we take part in what we commemorate; that’s why these things are so important. Before I go through the various days – and we will look at the Easter Vigil next week – I will lay out some basic principles.
The first thing to point out is that the special ceremonies of Holy Week are very old, and can be traced back to the earliest centuries of Christianity. In the last two hundred years or advances in scholarship have greatly expanded our knowledge of what happened in the worship of the early Church. For example we have one extraordinary document called the Travels of Egeria, an account by a woman from what is now Spain in the 4th century. Egeria describes he travels to the Holy Land, spending a lot of time telling us about how Christians in Jerusalem celebrated Holy Week and Easter. The way we celebrate Holy Week was more or less fixed by the 10th century.
The second principle we need to remember is that because these ceremonies are so old and so special, we need to have a particular frame of mind when we join in them. We prioritise the time we give to them; we realise that for the most part they will take time; we don’t expect them to be short! This was, and to some extent still is, challenged by the circumstances of the pandemic; but what we consider tonight and next Tuesday is the ideal, to which hopefully we will be able to return next year. We are asked to be generous in terms of the time we give to God in worship in Holy Week because of the events we are marking, the death and resurrection of the Lord. None of these things make sense if we keep looking at our watches.
Thirdly, we are not only joining in worship with Christians over the centuries who have done these things in Holy Week, we are at this time of the year joining in a special way with our fellow Christians all over the world. While there are differences in certain places, by and large Catholics worship in the same way in Holy Week all over the world: and one of the ways in which we have changed in the last two years is that we can watch acts of worship from all over the world: in particular, led by Pope Francis in Rome. We feel a particular closeness to others at this time of the year. That’s particularly important for Catholics for a significant historical reason: at the Reformation in this country more or less all the special rites and ceremonies of Holy Week were abolished. Things our forbears had done to mark the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus for centuries were made illegal, and did not properly reappear until the 19th century.
Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord
For Christians Sunday is the first day of the week, so the Sunday of Holy Week is the beginning of it. In this parish we begin the build up a week before that, when we veil and statues and crosses in the Church – and we will do this on Saturday. It is optional now, but it’s a visually powerful reminder that we’re in a special time: everything in the physical space of the church becomes hauntingly austere. Since crosses are veiled as well as statues the experience is rather paradoxical; we don’t have the usual visual aids, we have to make more effort with our imagination, with listening to the Scriptures.
We re-enact the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey and people getting him the waving of palms, olives and other branches. This is a very ancient ceremony, which sometimes began from another church. It’s an important act of witness, which we begin here before the 930 Mass from the recreation ground. After two years ago almost hiding away, I would encourage as many of you as possible to join in the outdoor procession. At other Masses we make a ceremony of coming from the back into the church.
Another tradition on Palm Sunday is that we mark the seriousness of what we’re doing by listening to one of the long narratives of the Passion of Christ – now a different one each year (before the reforms it was always the Passion of Matthew on Palm Sunday). This is semi-dramatised by being read by three readers (in theory three deacons), but it’s not a straightforward dramatisation. Sometimes it is sung (to a very distinctive chant) and there are musical settings of the part of the crowd, by composers such as Palestrina.
The next three days of the week don’t have unusual ceremonies, but the gospel readings gradually prepare us for the last three days of the week. We don’t mark any saints’ days in Holy Week or Easter week: anything really big is simply transferred to when it’s all over (such as St George’s day). In this diocese on the Wednesday (Spy Wednesday because the gospel reading is about Judas) we have in the cathedral the annual Mass of the Chrism when the archbishop blesses all the holy oils we use for the next year (in theory it’s meant to be on the Thursday morning but you can have it earlier.
Until the 1950s all the special ceremonies of what we call the Triduum Sacrum (‘the sacred three days’) were celebrated in the early morning, even when they had originally been celebrated in the evening; also, as far as I am aware, they weren’t always as well attended as they are now. This was all changed from 1950.
On the Thursday of Holy Week we mark the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper by Jesus: therefore we’re not allowed to have any Mass other than the one in the evening. A word about names: in much of the world this day is called Holy Thursday, but the old English name is Maundy Thursday. This is because the gospel reading recounts Jesus saying ‘a new commandment I give you, love one another’ – the Latin word for commandment is mandatum, and ‘maundy’ is old English form of that word. This all relates to one of the specific ceremonies in the Mass when the priest re-enacts the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus at the Last Supper described in John’s gospel. Before the reforms after Vatican II this only happened in big churches, monasteries and cathedrals, and it happened earlier in the day. It was done in England by the monarch too, but the Hanoverians replaced the foot washing with giving people money in the 18th century. Before the election of Pope Francis the priest washed the feet of twelve Catholic men, but a few weeks after his election in 2013 he extended this to women and non-Christians, a very significant reform (and again he performs the ceremony away from church earlier in the day). This will be the first celebration of this ceremony this year since 2019.
There’s one thing you can’t understand about the Maundy Thursday ceremonies without understanding Good Friday. Because the Mass is a celebration, in some Christian liturgies the Mass isn’t celebrated on penitential days (so in some rites on Fridays in Lent). On such occasions people receive Holy Communion from hosts consecrated the previous day. In the Roman rite Good Friday is the only such day, so on the Thursday we consecrate enough hosts for the Good Friday liturgy. At the end of the Mass these consecrated hosts are taken to a place traditionally known as the Altar of Repose, to remain until the Friday. This is usually decorated with candles and flowers in order to recreate the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus and his disciples went in Jerusalem after the Last Supper. Here we have for the last twenty years (apart from the last two years) had the Altar of Repose in the hall, which is a good way of marking how special the place is and stressing that the hall is part of our church premises. We keep a watch in silent prayer until midnight, mindful that at some point in the evening the Lord was arrested and his disciples ran away. In case you’re anxious we do transfer the Blessed Sacrament at midnight to the safe in the sacristy as there’s no one living above the hall these days.
I am only going to talk this evening about the afternoon liturgy of Good Friday (incidentally that name for today is only found in English); for Covid reasons we have now children’s service or walk of witness this year (though there is a service on St George’s Green).
It’s now at 3pm, as the gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified at this hour; in some countries it’s in the evening, if the day is not a public holiday. Remember it’s not a Mass, and much of what happens is different, marking how special the day is. It’s almost as if we feel a bit lost in the face of the Saviour’s death. This is certainly so at the beginnings when we gather in silent, and while everyone else is kneeling, the clergy mark our sense of desolation by lying prostrate on the floor (which only happens normally at ordinations). The service begins very simply with a prayer and readings (this is the ancient way in which liturgies began in the early Church). We always hear on Good Friday the gospel of John.
Many aspects of the Good Friday liturgy are very ancient, and after the homily we have the Solemn Prayers, much more elaborate than our usual bidding prayers, marked by us all genuflecting before each prayer topic; these includes specific groups – such as the Jewish people, other non-Christians and so on. In the old liturgy the prayer for the Jews was marked by negative language which would not be considered acceptable today: sadly at some points in history Good Friday was a day when Jews were subjected to violent attacks by Christians.
An ancient ceremony originating in France is the veneration of the Cross. The deacon brings the crucifix in as we kneel down three times. It is meant to be dramatic. Here the ceremony of us all kissing the feet of the crucifix, which in medieval England was known as ‘creeping to the cross’ is one ceremony we’re not carrying out this year for Covid reasons (it is actually optional) and we’ll be asked to venerate the Lord in silence from our places. Hopefully we will be able to kiss the cross again next year. Traditionally clergy go up to kiss the cross taking off their shoes first and some of their vestments.
Then the Blessed Sacrament is brought to the altar and we all receive Holy Communion. The liturgy ends in a low key way without a blessing, and it’s one day when we ask you to leave the church quietly. In the evening of Good Friday we may have Stations and devotions to mark the beginning of the Divine Mercy novena.
Next week we look at Holy Saturday and the Easter Vigil.
The Easter Vigil and why it matters
Culmination of the programme
The Catholic Church sees the celebration of the Easter Vigil on the night between Holy Saturday and Easter Day (not ‘Easter Saturday’ which is a week later) as the culmination of the worshipping life of Christians: from what we call the ‘Paschal mystery’ the whole sacramental life of the Church flows. That’s why this was the first thing to be reformed and renewed over seventy years ago in 1950. So it is also the climax of this programme – following on from our discussion of the sacrilegious war in Ukraine, as the Holy Father called it the other day, our review of the synodal process and our examination last week of the rest of Holy Week. Some general points to make:
- What is more important than listening to me is to try and actually come if you’re here, or go to it in another church if you’re away (I realise because Easter is late and at the end of the school holidays many families are away).
- Easter is about the victory of the Lord Jesus over death and destruction: we must experience our worship this Easter, more than ever, in the sad context of the suffering, sin and death in the world. Our Lord in his sufferings and death is closely united to those suffering from war – in Ukraine and many other parts of the world – and our worship at Easter is an affirmation that he has the last word, that sin and war will be overcome in the end.
- It’s also a particularly important time to be united with our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church all over the world, and with our Holy Father Pope Francis. Traditionally on Easter Day the pope gives a special blessing ‘to the city and the world’ (urbi et orbi); however much or little we manage to get to of our own ceremonies of Holy Week and Easter, I would urge you to watch the ceremonies on YouTube at which he presides, including the Easter Vigil. In this dark time he is the world’s true teacher; but even many Catholics are not listening to what he says.
- This evening I will only give a brief sketch about the Easter Vigil – it’s a big subject so you might want to read up further about its history and meaning.
Covid and other circumstances this year
I said last week that Covid and its after-effects, not to mention practical issues like the temperature of the church building, means that there are still some restrictions for our customary way of celebrating Holy Week and Easter. For the vigil this means that we won’t have the full set of Old Testament readings which we are normally required to have (the third edition of the current altar missal strengthened its instruction about this); it will also be different this year because we have one adult being confirmed and received into the Church, but no baptisms; nor is there a party afterwards in the hall. Hopefully next year things will be different.
Historical background We know more about how the Easter Vigil was celebrated in the early Church than about any other act of worship – some of our sources go back to the early second century, only a couple of generations after the New Testament. This is because Easter, the resurrection of Jesus, defined his followers from the very beginning, and also because it was universally the case that it was at this ceremony on Easter night that new converts to Christianity were baptised, after some weeks of rigorous preparation. When after Vatican II the Church established what we call the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) which has been tremendously important in this parish, it wasn’t setting up anything new: it was restoring, very faithfully, what we know happened in the early Christian Church. What was also distinctive in the early accounts we have is that all is was celebrated by the bishop in his cathedral – at this stage there was one single act of worship for Christians in the whole city. We have tried to recapture this as well now: as you may know at the beginning of Lent each year all those to be baptised or received gather in our cathedral for what is called the Rite of Election, when the archbishop chooses those wishing to be baptised (‘elects’ them) and their names are enrolled in a book. Priests at the Easter Vigil act in the name of the bishop as the chief celebrant of the sacraments of initiation, using the oils blessed by him a few days before in the middle of Holy Week at the Mass of the Chrism.
The reforms to Catholic worship after Vatican II were motivated by two key ideas: the first was to restore Christian worship, enabling people more easily to understand what they are joining in, in ways that are inspired by what we know about how Christians worshipped in the early Church; and secondly, to help us be more effectively a missionary Church. So the restored Easter Vigil and the RCIA process are central to the enormous expansion of the Catholic Church in the last seventy years, particularly in Africa; since in western Europe we are now in a missionary setting again, it has to be central for us too. That is why this is so important.
So our sources show that the things we do at the vigil go back to the early Church – the anointing of those being baptised, the clothing in white garments, the new fire outside the Church, the Paschal Candle, the deacon’s chant in front of the candle, the long Old Testament readings – they’re ‘given’, and a rich part of our heritage of worship and shared Christian experience. This is one reason why the last two years have been so painful – particularly in this country two years ago when churches were closed completely. This ought to make us mindful this year of our brothers and sisters, particularly in places like Ukraine, who will find it difficult to celebrate Easter properly this year.
Going through what happens
In my description now I will focus on what we have normally done here – though the last time it was done in the customary way was three years ago in 2019 – making some reference to what happens elsewhere; but by and large there is more consistency among Catholics about how the Vigil is celebrated, and, at least in relation to Anglicans, more that we share with other Christians. For Eastern Christians, both Eastern rite Catholics (e.g. the Ukrainian Catholic Church) and Orthodox the ceremony is also important, but it is somewhat more elaborate.
First issue is sometimes a problem in parishes: when do you have it? The missal says that ‘the whole service must take places in the night’, and that it should begin ‘after nightfall’, and this really means it should be when it is beginning to get dark. Here it’s usually 8 or 830. You certainly can’t do it at 6. In some places it is much later, or even so late, or rather early, that’s timed to end at dawn. We should be prepared to be adventurous and realise that this is different from anything else we do: and people should make the effort, if it’s important to them. If you want a short Mass, don’t come!
Throughout history lighting fires has been a sign of solidarity and warning that something big is going to happen, as well as a source of warmth; so we begin outside the church with a fire which is blessed by the priest. It should be a real and visible fire, around which the Christian community gathers. From this fire are take coals for the incense, and also a taper to light the Paschal candle.
This candle becomes the symbol of Easter in the Church for the next year, in the body of the church and after that near the font. A new one every year, decorated with grains of incense, the Greek letters alpha and omega and the numbers of the calendar year. The victory of Christ over death at Easter I symbolised, again and again, by the imagery of light overcoming darkness: so the deacon leads the people of God into a darkened church – and it needs to be really dark. In all the ceremonies like this what is symbolised is the women searching for the body of Jesus in a darkened tomb: he is not here, he is risen! How this is done is important: first, just the lit paschal candle; then the candles of the people, gradually lit from the candle, from the single light of Christ (do not bring your own box of matches!). We show our oneness with each other by passing the light to each other, sharing light and warmth in this darkened world. You cannot exaggerate the visual power of this ceremony; you also have to experience it!
When we come in the deacon censes the candle and then sings the chant known as the Exultet. I tell my diaconate students that they need to see singing this is the highlight of their year and of their ministry; we provide singing classes to help them do it (it’s a bit complex in a parish with three deacons). The text is very old and so is the plainchant music; the 2011 translation is a great improvement on the earlier one. It is rich in symbolism and rich language, uncharacteristic of much Roman liturgy – it talks at one point of the bees who have helped to make the wax of the candle. The candle is likened to the pillar of fire which leads the people of Israel out of Egypt. In St Edmund’s our tradition is that very gradually during the chant the main lights in the church are gradually lit up.
The readings now follow. The missal says ‘nine readings are provided, all of which should be read whenever this can be done, so that the character of the Vigil, which demands an extended period of time, may be preserved.’ They tell the story of what we call salvation history – and because it’s a rich story, full of so much meaning, the Church wants us to hear the whole thing, so I will assume for the purposes of this talk that you are listening to all of them; each reading is followed not only by a psalm but by a prayer. The first is part of the Creation account from Genesis, and then the account from Genesis of Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac, which leads to God’s promise that he will be the father of a great nation. One reading you have to have whatever else you do is the account of the crossing of the sea by the people of Israel fleeing from the Egyptians from the book of Exodus. Th crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection happens at the Jewish feast of Passover (pesach), marking the people’s deliverance from Pharaoh and the Egyptians, a narrative which many Ukrainians may see as a source of strength this year, so this dramatic story from chapter 14 is central to the Easter Vigil’s ‘story.’ The fifth reading is the promise of a covenant and new relationship which God makes in Isaiah 55 – there’s also here water imagery which points us forward to baptism. The prophet Baruch is one of the books you don’t find in Protestant Bibles, and our next reading from this shows how God’s moral law is a source of light for his people. The baptismal imagery is taken up again in the seventh reading from Ezekiel: God will pour water over his people to cleanse them, and give them a new heart.
In the old Easter Vigil rite, which began to be reformed in 1950, there were twelve Old Testament readings (known as ‘prophecies’). The additional ones were part of the story of Noah from Genesis, the vision of dry bones from Esekiel, the instructions about the Passover lamb from Exodus, the story of Jonah, the final words of Moses from Deuteronomy and the story of the three young men in the furnace from the book of Daniel.
After the eight we sing the Gloria and the bells are rung for the first time since the evening of Maundy Thursday. Then we have a New Testament reading – St Paul’s great vision of the resurrection from Romans chapter 6, and before the gospel we sing the word beginning with ‘A’ which I won’t say now, for the first time since Shrove Tuesday……and the gospel of the resurrection: this year, from Luke’s gospel.
After the homily we bless the water which here has in the past been used for adult baptisms. This is an elaborate prayer which helps us understand how we are joined to the Lord’s resurrection through our baptism. During the prayer the deacon is expected to plunge the candle in and out of the water, a very vivid and striking image. If baptisms happen they now take place at the font (some churches have constructed special pools in the floor to enable this to happen by total immersion, and very vividly. Here the adult leans over the font.) Normally here while they go off to put on their white garments the rest of us renew our baptismal promises and are sprinkled with the new water, as we do often especially in the Easter season. Then the new Christians come back before the altar; those to be received into the Church profess their faith and all of them are confirmed. Normally in the western Church young people are confirmed by a bishop; but at the Easter Vigil, and at some other times, a priest is delegated to do this. The Mass continues more or less as usual – the new Catholics make their First Holy Communion.
The Theology of the Easter Vigil
The Easter Vigil is so rich and deep; I am just pinpointing some interesting theological aspects of what we will be doing a week on Saturday.
- Passover and Liberation
For the Church it is no accident that the crucifixion happened at Pesach. It’s meant to be! The Passover was and is the narrative of the Liberation of the people of Israel, the Jews. At the outset the Easter Vigil has to help us understand the Jewish roots of Christianity and the continuing evil of Antisemitism in the world, not absent from the Church in some places; we also need to be aware of anti- Jewish sentiments in some early Christian theologians. We also have to be sensitive to danger of appropriating or stealing the Passover story: at the same time for Christians the Exodus, what is celebrated in Passover, points us to the Last Supper, to the Cross, to the Resurrection. Moreover the Liberation of the Jewish people provides a model for the Liberation we gain through Christ’s victory. The whole tradition of Liberation Theology, emanating from Latin America in the late 1960s and so important in the whole life of the Church, has drawn strength from Exodus, from Passover. The Easter Vigil is at the heart of this. Liberation from sinfulness, liberation from all that dehumanises, liberation from the curse of war and violence.
The event of the resurrection, the finding of the empty tomb, is an event in history. The Lord is not simply raised from the dead; he is raised from a cruel and violent death, a death at the hands of soldiers, soldiers in a brutal empire, occupying the Holy Land. At the heart of the Church’s opposition now to the death penalty has to be our worship of a victim of a death penalty, of a cruel and barbaric way of killing, though maximum pain and torture. We’re seeing so much violence in the world – and people saw a great deal in the Roman Empire of the time of Jesus – and the Resurrection is a victory over violence, cruelty and the official, judicial killing of an innocent man. If we understand Easter, if we understand the Easter Vigil, we see how what we do in Church can never, ever be a way of fleeing from the sufferings in the world. Therefore our celebrations have to be a source of hope for those who suffer so much in the world as a result of violence and war.
I have stressed the important of having all eight Old Testament readings in normal circumstances. It’s a long period and it’s meant to be. For once the Church makes us listen to a lot of Sacred Scripture: this is in line, ideally, with the special Year of the Word of God which we started just before the pandemic began two years ago. These readings tell the tale of salvation history, the waiting of God’s people for the coming of the Messiah, for the Liberation which comes from Christ’s victory, the triumph of Christ our Passover. The waiting while we listen to God’s Word prepares us for St Paul’s great outburst in Romans 6 and the gospel account of the finding of the empty tomb. The waiting is part of what the Vigil is about. In terms of the coming of God’s kingdom, much of the waiting is still going on. We’re still waiting for justice, waiting for an end to war and violence. We have had to learn patience about many things in the last two years: but we’re waiting in so many ways.
Baptism is our celebration of common life in Christ – and at Easter we invite new converts into the Church through baptism and (if they’re already baptised) being received into the Church and confirmed. This gives us strength and confidence: it also helps us understand what it means to be part of the wider family of the Catholic Church, bigger than this parish, bigger than the Archdiocese of Southwark, bigger than the Church in England and Wales, bigger than the Church in Europe. Celebrations of the Easter Vigil, other celebrations in Holy Week, are much more elaborate, exuberant and joyful in many other parts of the world than they are in England (for example, in Latin America and in Africa).
This leads to my final point. In our parish, along with the rest of the Catholic Church as we falteringly (perhaps) stagger out of the pandemic, and as we try to respond to the worsening horrors of war in the world, we are engaged mission which we’re planning in the light of your synodal feedback. How do we all preach the Good News more effectively in the darkness of the world, the darkness of this country? What we celebrate in the Easter Vigil is central to this: we have in our parish an experienced and dedicated RCIA team; while it is not surprising that after the problems of the last two years we have this year only one person being received into the Church this Easter and no adult being baptised. We all have work to do as missionaries.
I hope this evening and this series have been helpful.