Job: artist, Leon Bonnat

Pontius Pilate, who would later condemn Jesus, murdered some Jews in Jerusalem as they prayed thus mingling their blood with that of sacrifices. A disgraceful act of violence and an affront to faith. Why had God allowed it? Later a tower fell killing innocent people. Again the Jews asked why had God allowed it? 

This question is put to Jesus. An understandable question and the hardest for people of faith to answer. If God is loving why does he allow suffering even if he does not will it or cause it? 

Throughout history some people have answered by suggesting that suffering is a form of divine retribution. Thus when the AIDS epidemic first struck many fundamentalist protestants claimed it was God’s punishment on the sexually immoral. Now, of course, sins do have dire consequences- if we choose to sleep around casually then sexual disease becomes not just possible but even likely –  but do not think for a moment that God deliberately wreaks havoc on anyone. No; God loves us regardless of our wrongful choices and behaviour. Just as good parents still love their children deeply even when livid with them due to bad behaviour. Indeed it is the love that fuels the anger in most cases!

Besides we know this retributive argument is nonsense because bad things happen to good people too. And also because Jesus told us that to follow him is not to embrace comfort but to ‘take up a cross’ and follow. It requires us to embrace not escape suffering that comes our way in this life. Faith does not remove hardships then, it does not remotely soften them. What it offers is a strength to endure. The power to take up that cross and follow. 

So what is the better response to the question of suffering? Interestingly the earliest portion of scripture, the book of Job, centres on this very question. In it we are presented with a morality play, a story in which the devil causes Job to suffer grievously to test his faith. Because Job is faithful God eventually provides the answer to suffering. But, I am sorry to say, it will never convince or satisfy unbelievers. Because Job’s answer is not a neat argument, or a material gain instead it is a life changing experience. Job is granted a theophany, he gets to see the face of God , he receives divine grace, the gift of sanctification and it is enough; it delights his soul. His question is not answered in an earthly but a heavenly sense. He is then shown to be at peace with his suffering. The message in Job then is that if we truly experience and know God the suffering in this life will be as nothing compared to our deep joy in him. 

Back to the Gospel and Jesus responds by making clear that suffering is not, as we have shown, linked to punishment. Then he alludes to what the book of Job teaches. He suggests violence and suffering in this fallen world should serve as a reminder of our need for God. It should lift our hopes from finding joy in this life to seeking it in the next. We discover the Lenten significance of the text. Jesus says pain in this broken world should encourage us to repent. Because if we turn to God, like Job, we will have theophany- the grace to overcome the hardships of this transitory life. Hardships that are all too real and could, if we do not repent, become our eternal reward. 

Repentance is not what the world often imagines. It is not an apology or whine for forgiveness. The word ‘metanoia’ means to change direction; to turn from the suffering of self-governance to the joy of right relationship with God. The choice to embrace theophany, to live in a state of perpetual grace. The Christian life. Do it well and we you will care little for what the world throws at you because you will view this life only as a stepping stone to a better life. Hence so many Christian martyrs, even as they suffered barbaric torture, died in ecstasy praising God. If we allow God to truly mould us, if our faith is real, we fear nothing for He is with us. 

A final point about suffering is found in the parable of the fig tree which the gardener ought to tear down because it produces no fruit but chooses to care for once more just in case it comes to life. The point Jesus is making in it is that God allows this broken world to continue, allows the suffering, because he believes in second, third and fourth chances. God did not immediately return in glory to end wickedness, corruption and suffering for good reason. He wants to give us every chance to turn to him before the end of the ages. His waiting is a sign of patient love, a yearning that humanity will yet come to its senses, repent and believe. So go to confession this Lent. Repent and claim the grace to endure anything that this world can throw at you. Receive the only cure for suffering- which is sanctification.

For those who like arty philosophical films I highly recommend ‘The Tree of Life”; a modern reflection on the book of Job. It explores the theme of grief within a family and the effect it has on them. It explores how grief effects differently the feminine spirit of the mother and the masculine fire of the father. It is a deep and very beautiful film if perhaps confusing on the first viewing- I got much more out of it on a second viewing. Full of insight and mystical pondering about the nature of God and his relationship with the created order. Here is a clip during which the prayer of the grieving mother leads into a stunning sequence about the creation of life itself and God’s place at the very heart of it. This clip is exquisite- turn up the sound, put it on full screen and enjoy a mystical moment….

Today is world Down Syndrome day. A day for celebrating the life and gifts of people who have this condition. I have always found them to be honest, loyal, sincere and joyful. Very joyful! And certainly the two lovely children with Down Syndrome who regularly attend Mass at St. Anselm’s fit that description.

The video links in today’s post show how much Down Syndrome people can achieve when enabled to fulfil their potential and when their condition is treated like a blessing not a curse. They also speak out powerfully about the empowering role that fathers can have in life when committed to their families. I challenge you not to smile as you watch them!

Sadly the world is often not kind to people with Down Syndrome. And today, in many parts of the world, they even face extinction due to the evil of abortion. In Iceland last year not a single child with Down Syndrome made it safely out of the womb. In most countries it is only a precious few of those who are conceived. It makes me muse on the wise saying that you judge a society on how it treats its most vulnerable members. How awful and how self defeating. We are impoverished as a result.

One of the cornerstones of Catholic teaching is that every life, from conception to the grave, is an embodied soul that is precious to God and merits dignity, love and respect. If only our culture was as kind as Down Syndrome people themselves tend to be; the world would be a better place. To any who fear disability and tend to see it only in terms of suffering I say go and work with special needs people for a week. Your eyes will soon open to the fact that they have just as much to offer you as you do them. Pray today for those with Down Syndrome.

In the Gospel, when the disciples asked Jesus for a sign of his return, Jesus offered the parable of the wise and foolish virgins; the point of which was to underline the real danger of spiritual sloth on the life of faith.

In the parable some virgins (Christians) are awaiting the return of the bridegroom (Christ) in anticipation of a great marriage feast (heaven). The wise virgins are attentive to their duties (the spiritual life) and keep their lamps fuelled with oil (the gift of divine grace) and so enter with the bridegroom when he arrives. In stark contrast the foolish virgins are inattentive to their duties (the life of prayer) and have thus run out of oil (grace and holiness) and, leaving it too late to find some at the last moment, miss his return and are locked out forever.

Jesus gave this parable as an indication of the conditions in this world prior to his return. Either we shall find the Church active and holy, choosing to live out her life faithfully, obedient to his will and building up the life of grace for the salvation of souls. Or we shall find her slothful, inactive and disobedient to God’s will meaning souls will surely perish and chaos and confusion will spread.

The choice is down to us. A holy generation, living out the faith in fullness, will produce good and holy clergy worthy of their calling. An unholy and worldly generation, undermining the faith at every turn, will produce only rotten fruit; corrupt clergy unworthy of that calling. Ultimately we get the standard of clergy that the quality of faith collectively lived out in our lives and homes deserves. Raise holy children and you get holy priests. Secularise and corrupt children and guess what happens? You got it!

All of which is to state that a sleepy, inactive church creates foolish virgins, people lacking requisite grace to carry out God’s mandate. But when the Church is awake and active, carrying out her disciplines and duties, obedient to God’s word and where people are helped to repent of sins, there authentic holiness will be fostered and found. 

The crisis in the church today is that too many Christians are akin to those foolish virgins. Sleepwalking through life inattentive to spiritual duty and therefore woefully short on supernatural grace. We find them lazily moulding the faith for their own comfort and convenience rather than living it out with courage for their sake of eternal salvation.

God has, I think, two words for the church today- WAKE UP!

So arise from torpid slumber and live out the faith authentically! Build up grace in your home. The Church is suffering grievously at present because she is sleeping on her watch. Because she is led, and who could deny it given so many scandals, by incompetent foolish virgins (if only they were in some cases!) That is to say deeply corrupt men lacking the necessary grace to revive faith, restore trust and breath new life into the Church.

We are as foolish as them if we continue to look to these charlatans for answers. There are a good number of Cardinals and Bishops who have, these past years, proved beyond doubt that they have no oil to offer. So instead we should seek out with discernment only those prelates who show forth virtue, fidelity and holiness. And, whilst there is time, return to the source and giver of oil; to the one true God whose Church it is. That we ourselves might be made the solution to the crisis by cultivating a fresh generation of authentic disciples; then the church may yet be reformed and led by wise virgins, that is to say, good and holy Saints.

The age of nominal Catholicism is over. It has failed us spectacularly and its rotten fruit is everywhere before us. The age for convicted and convincing Christianity is upon us. The enemy is at the gate, his minions have clearly broken into our ranks. But it is not too late for victory. The bridegroom is still on his way. So let us trim our lamps together and go out and rediscover the oil of holiness- without which there never can be any hope for reform.

The Texans have a lovely phrase to put those who grumble about the noise of small children at Mass in place. “A church without crying is a church that is dying!” This suggests Pembury must be in rude health at present as we celebrate the birth of several babies in recent months!

First up was baby Agnes, born last year. She was followed by baby David. Now congratulations turn to Roy and Beverley Cavey whose second child, Alice, arrived a few days ago. She is pictured in these photos. What a cutie! Roy is currently training for the diaconate and will be made the second deacon for our parish this summer in St. George’s Cathedral, Southwark.

And we are not done yet! John and Laura were given a special blessing at Mass last Tuesday, the day before Laura’s due date. So any day we expect Alice to be overtaken as youngest member of our congregation.

Marriage and the family are integral to Catholic faith. We delight at the birth of children viewing them all, from the moment of conception, as embodied souls precious to God. So who is next? Let’s grow a new generation of Catholics, teaching them by word and example in the home. Pray for the babies of our parish.

This year we are again supporting Aid to the Church in Need. Specifically their Lent appeal that seeks to raise income to support impoverished Christian families who have been displaced from their homes by violence, persecution and war.

£100 will support a nun working with the refugees for three months. £166 will support a family for a month by providing food, shelter and clothing. £45 will provide a food basket for a month. Please give generously.

Almsgiving is one of the Lenten disciplines. It should not simply entail throwing a few coins to the poor. A gift that we hardly notice. It should entail a gift that is considered and sacrificial. One good idea is to use money saved by giving up beer or chocolate or wine or whatever you have chosen throughout Lent. Another good idea is to save a little through the year for annual donations in Lent and Advent. But however you choose to do your almsgiving do it from the heart as an act of faith. We are so fortunate in terms of our comfort in the UK- no matter how tight the budget may be. Do not harm your economic stability – but please give generously. 

It is our stricy policy in Pembury to provide only for small charities and local projects where money will genuinely aid the poor. We steer away from large charities that spend large slices of income on salaries and administration and charities that have become self serving business models that can even harm the economic development of vulnerable communities. We must learn to help put people back on their feet when in crisis not to create entire communities dependent on aid and held down forever. 

Last night I gave a reflection at Tonbridge Church on the last words of Jesus to the penitent thief on the cross. I used these to ponder the crisis facing the church in our day and to offer the only solution I see to it.

Below is the talk. Why not put it on as you enjoy a cuppa or do the ironing?

Our neighbouring parish of Corpus Christi in Tonbridge has recently installed this new reredos to the sanctuary and it has added real beauty and dignity to worship. This Lent they are holding a series of lectures, based on the last words of Christ from the cross, in thanksgiving for the reredos. Everyone is very welcome to attend and I commend them to members of St. Anselm’s congregation.

The half hour talks take place at 8pm every day this week and are repeated on the following mornings at 10:30am following Mass at 10am. Tuesday, by kind invitation of Father Peter Murphy, I am delivering the lecture and have been given the interchange between Christ and the penitent thief to ponder. My theme will be the desperate need in our day for an end to the age of nominal Catholicism and for a new era of convicted Catholicism based on authentic interior conversion. Why not come along tonight or for one of the future lectures?

Here in Pembury our confirmation course begins tomorrow night, Wednesday, after Mass at 7pm. The course is not a closed group but open to all members of the congregation who feel some catechesis would be useful. It is good to revisit what we believe and why. After all you “cannot love what you do not know” -wisdom from the mouth of St. Anselm himself.

It is Ash Wednesday. The vestments are laid out for Mass. Please note it will take place at 7pm to allow time for the first session of our 2019 confirmation class which will take place immediately afterwards.

The confirmation course is open to anybody who wants to deepen their knowledge of the faith. Just pop along after 7pm Mass on any Wednesday in term time if you can make it. Confirmands need to commit every week but non confirmands are free to dip in and out as suits.

Today I shall be imposing ashes in prison and this evening in church. Lent is here so do try and make the most of it. See it as a gift to be treasured; a time for drawing closer to God and deepening your relationship with him. Ensure you do give something up that involves genuine sacrifice…for only this ensures we learn how to say NO to the self and develop the disciplines encouraged by such mortification. Put some money aside for the poor. Read something edifying and spend extra time in devotion and prayer.

The Stations of the Cross will be prayed throughout Lent on Sunday evenings at 6:30pm. Each week we use a different set of reflections. Confession- which you must make in Lent – takes place from 6pm-7pm every Wednesday or by appointment. We will announce our Lent Charity this coming Sunday and a collection box will be placed in church.

And remember that Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are fast days. Here is a very helpful infographic to remind you of your obligation as a Catholic.

Anyone who has heard me preach recently knows that I am deeply intolerant of child abuse and disgusted by the abuse scandal in the church. I believe bishops who covered up abuse should be held accountable by the civil realm and thrown into prison. So on the surface you might expect me to be pleased that a Cardinal has finally been found guilty of abuse and incarcerated in Australia. But, like many who have followed the case closely, I am actually troubled because I do not believe abuse has been proved beyond all reasonable doubt.

What follows is not, therefore, an unquestioning defence of Pell simply because he is Catholic. If he is guilty of historic sex abuse we should lock the man up and throw away the key. What follows is my fear concerning what might prove to be a witch hunt and a serious miscarriage of justice. Which I think should concern anyone, regardless of beliefs, who believes justice should be administered in court based on evidence and not simply hearsay.

The first thing to understand that this case did not begin, as one might expect, with a victim bringing information to the police. Rather it began with the police appealing to the public for people to come forward and accuse the Cardinal of abuse. This within a nation steeped in anti-Catholic sentiment whose media had already turned Cardinal Pell l into a figure of derision. The first alarm bells ring regarding impartiality.

Conspiracy theorists point out that the case rather conveniently materialised just as Cardinal Pell was getting to the heart of serious corruption in the Vatican bank allegedly linked to powerful people. Was he set up to stop him in his tracks? Who knows but even leaving aside the conspiracy theories this case itself is riddled with problems from a judicial standpoint. Let us consider the case itself then.

Two accusers came forward. Both were unstable men, one of whom later confessed to his mother, on his deathbed, that the abuse never, in fact, took place. That left one. So it was, ultimately, one word against another. Now any active policeman or lawyer can tell you that, in normal cases, one word against another is not enough to secure a conviction. Why then was the case not dropped? How did Cardinal Pell end up behind bars on evidence that would have been thrown out of court in almost every other instance?

Then there is the fact that this trial was a re-run. The first jury having acquitted Pell by a vote of 10-2. In Britain this would have been the end of the matter. But instead the case was heard again with a new jury. On what grounds was this done given that no new evidence was submitted? Those alarm bells begin to ring louder.

And then there is the nature of the claim itself. In convicting Pell the court simply dismissed the evidence of worshipers, servers, choir members and clergy who came forward to say such abuse could not happen. The accuser claims the abuse took place after a busy Sunday Mass in a Cathedral sacristy; a busy room whose door was open at all times. Meaning the abuse is meant to have taken place just feet away from passers by, anyone of whom could have entered the room at any time.

Furthermore the victims admit to having not known Pell prior to the abuse. Meaning they were not groomed yet neither called out for help. Are we really to believe a man with no prior police record would be so reckless as to happen upon strangers in a busy sacristy and chance his arm in this way? A serial sex offender might behave like this but it does not seem the modus operandi of a prelate with a reputation to protect.

Then there is the fact that bishops are never left alone when vested on duty but accompanied by members of the laity. This is where the claim begins to become fantastical – supposedly Cardinal Pell not only refused to go and greet the faithful after Mass, which would have been noticed, but managed to use a six minute window when the prosecution claim his chaperone was having a cigarette to carry out the abuse. Again this seems so risky as to be madness. Surely a man who took such risks is unlikely to have only elicited two allegations from a nation wide police appeal?

And there are inconsistencies in how the abuse is said to have occurred. The allegation is that Pell parted his vestments down the middle to expose himself before forcing both boys to perform oral sex. Yet, as any church person knows, the vestments worn at mass cannot be parted as albs are seamless. And, as a priest who has occasionally needed to use the lavatory whilst vested, I can assure you that, with vestments hitched up around one’s waist with one hand, one is hardly able to control oneself -let alone two other people. Put bluntly the accusation as it stands makes no sense to anyone who wears vestments regularly. How is Pell meant to have held his robes up over his waist whilst also forcing two separate people to do lewd things? It just doesn’t add up.

Some, admitting that the case is flimsy, suggest it doesn’t matter because he was probably guilty anyway. I am sorry but that is not how justice works. If there is good evidence bring it to court. But if there is insufficient evidence we have to suppose innocence until proven guilty.

Do we really want to support a society in which one can go to prison simply on the hearsay of another? This case is now going to appeal. I pray that either much better evidence is presented or else it is thrown out. Otherwise Pell will not be the greatest victim in this case. The real victim will be the credibility of the Australian judiciary.