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Fr Pontifex. Christian Music for the Modern Age?

Thanks to Pontifex University student Kathryn for bringing this to my notice.  Following on from my article about Frank La Rocca, she brought the work of composer who is an ordained priest and whose stage name is ‘Fr Pontifex’ (this is pure coincidence I promise).

She wrote a comment with a link saying: ‘This is not Schubert but where do you think it sits in relation to the liturgy?’

Well. This is definitely not my genre and so, at risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy failing to understand what the youth of today are up to (‘but it’s nice to see the young people enjoying themselves’) here is my response..

It is some form of rap in its singing style, or at least that’s what an article in The Blaze in 2013 referred to it (see, New Rap Album From a Surprising Performer Warns About the Dangers of Removing God From American Society). I admit that thought that the style of singing that seems to be called rap had its peak with Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s White Lines Don’t Do It in 1983 and have been predicting its demise ever since…which shows how much I know.

My response to the music of Fr Pontifex is that as long as we don’t see it anywhere near the liturgy, I don’t see why it can’t be doing good. The test for me is not if it appeals to Christians, although that is not without value, but rather if it has the power to supplant its non-Christian equivalent because it has merit in the eyes of those who listen to this music for music, and not for the message. Christian music has to good enought to compete with secular in its own terms, I suggest.

Furthermore, it would be interesting to see the effect it has on those who like it. Does it open in them a desire for the source of the beauty that is appealing to them in this music. If so, then it really does have merit. That, I suggest, rests as in the musical forms used as the text. Aside from the rapped lyrics, the music does sound to me to be sophisticated and melodic and may well do so. Anyway, you make your mind up. In the 1970s it was the music of pre 1975 Genesis that did just that for me and created a desire for more that was consummated with my hearing Palestrina in Mass several years later (see my article Can Popular Music Create a Desire for God?). If we get the evangelization of the culture right, then in theory someone could be engaged by this, be lead into the music of Frank La Rocca and then come home to plainchant in the Mass..or that’s the theory.

Fr Pontifex has website, here, and it can be streamed for free if you have Prime on Amazon, here.


Easter, icons, historicism and liturgical time

I have just passed through the great Triduum, from Maundy Thursday to Easter Day, in Emmaus, the place where the risen Christ made himself known in the ‘breaking of bread’, completing the revelation of the new Christian Liturgy of the Eucharist.


It is easy to slip into a sense of historical reflection, to think of the disciples ending up on this very spot after hours spent in the company of Jesus yet only at the last moment realising just who he was. Using the common techniques of spiritual reflection on Biblical texts, through using my imagination I could have transported myself back in a sort of time machine to when these events happened. But to do so would have been a serious temptation to break away from the Liturgical reality that Christ established here all those centuries ago.

Why do I say that? This short essay is an attempt to answer that question.

Christ IS risen. Not WAS risen. We don’t celebrate a memory of a past event, something come and gone. We celebrate the contemporary reality we live in. It’s a subtle use of a tense but quite deliberate. Christ as God is beyond time and everything he does is beyond the limits of time, it’s an eternal ‘now’.

The resurrection established a new paradigm in human reality, a fusion of time with eternity, that is of time with what we might call ‘beyond time’, something without beginning or end embracing that which is finite, thus opening us to the experience of an eternal now. Death was a definition of time where reality passes from existence into non existence. It was the ultimate end point, which Jesus abolished through catching up our created and mortal humanity into his Divinity. By Jesus walking out of the tomb he transformed our existence totally. The challenge was, and is, for us to embrace this transformed horizon and to live with our sights set on the eternal rather than the transient. The challenge is to grasp that this transformation has taken place and is actually true, and to allow that to impact on our conscious way of living,

The resurrection was thus not simply a moment in time, but an eternal moment, the moment that transformed the human experience of being alive from one of passing through to one of life that is eternal, as though time is being stopped as that moment remains accessible from every moment of time to come and indeed that has passed.

Living in the context of a physicality that remains to be finally transformed is a complex and demanding challenge. We await the creation of a new heaven and new earth, one where the spiritual dominates the physical and not the other way round as is the case today. We await the fulfilment of all things, that is the final working out of this moment of transformation we know as the resurrection into the very fibre of the whole cosmos, physical and spiritual, the world of men and the world of angels.

The Christian Liturgy preempts this experience through the employment of potent symbols, ones which not simply point to other things but in themselves give us a taste of them. From ancient times Christian teachers have spoken of the Liturgy as the wedding of heaven and earth, of the physical space around the altar being, to use a contemporary term, a ‘thin place’, made so by the transubstantiation of the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist into Christ’s risen Body and Blood. The Liturgy celebrated on earth is an echo of and a participation in the constant act of praise that ascends to God the Father from the heart of Christ and all that is United with him, angels, saints, cherubim and seraphim, and the people on Earth that gather in him through baptism.

The Saints have long had visions that pierce this reality, and miracles continue to attest to this. Christ continues to be present as on that Easter morning in every celebration of this great and wonderful Liturgy. As Christians enact his command to do this and rehearse the culmination of this transformation of fallen humanity in obedience to his command, so the Lord is right there, in their midst, just as he was on that first Easter morning. Every Sunday celebrates this, is an Easter Day, as is every Eucharist in and of itself. The Eucharist more than anything else defines the Christian life, is it’s Centre and it’s fountain.

The call to communion, to receive this transfigured and transfiguring Bread and Wine is thus a call to a deeper communion with the Risen Lord, to allow our experience, our vision, our desire to be shaped by this. It is the foretaste of eternity, and propels us into that reality where time has ceased and eternity has begun, a dawn time, a moment where greater realities than we can imagine have begun to be formed in us and which will culminate in the transformation of all things at the end of time. Hence why receiving the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily, without being disposed to this transformation can result in an interior dislocation and even as St Paul warns us, death.

Within Protestant traditions this whole focus has been abandoned and it has been reduced to a historical reflection, a travesty of the resurrection, a denial of the very nature of the Resurrection and its impact on time and on humanity here and now. It has reduced everything to the most banal symbols, locating Christ in our imagining, in our thoughts and emotions and denied the means for him to transform our actual being in a holistic and material way, both physically and in terms of our experience of time. Faith has been emptied to be a blind longing for a halcyon time consigned to our imagining, not a desire built on a real and actual foretaste of things to come.

Yet even in western Catholicism this historicism has woven itself into popular devotions and many of the experiments with the Liturgy since the Second Vatican Council have erred in a similar manner. Popularly this has been experienced as a purgation of various devotions, such as kneeling for communion, the abolition of the extended fast, the eradication of real beauty in music and so forth but at its heart has been the reduction of Liturgy to words, to ideas thought about, read, and spoken. This focus on the texts has been at the expense of the sense of the imminence of the holy, a certain encouragement of banality and a focus on making people feel comfortable in their ordinariness. Not all of this is necessarily bad or harmful, but because it masks a collective move away from a sense of the Eucharist as the actual transforming moment of Resurrection its cumulative impact is devastating at many different levels.

Nor is its impact restricted to the Liturgy per se, but upon all those aspects of Christian life which originate with its sense of transcending time. For example, religious life, with its focus of living with the reference to the eternal life that is to come, or the sense of preparing for a happy death through the use of such tools as regular confession. Without the sense of the transformation of time into eternity as a lived foretaste open to the Christian in this present life embodied in the Liturgy all these things loose their force and dwindle away, as has been devastatingly demonstrated in Catholicism in various western countries.

My own perception of this is of art in the Liturgy, or should I better say the abandonment of the art of the Liturgy. Yes, there is an art form which is shaped by and for the Liturgy, distinctive and authoritative. It’s common name is iconography, and it is most commonly experienced in the Liturgical context of the eastern churches. Its demise in the west helps I think to trace the origins of the more general demise of the resurrection perspective on time, life and Liturgy.

In the 13th century there was a move in Western Christian life to engage the emotions and senses through engaging the imagination, in order to facilitate a deeper engagement especially among ordinary, uneducated folk with the Person of Christ. Perhaps the best earliest example is the devotion to the poor Christ in the Christmas crib as popularised, or perhaps invented, by St Francis of Assisi. Here the crib was to evoke in those who saw it not so much the majesty of Christ now so much as the Christ of history, of the moment in time when he was poor, helpless and born in the humiliating straw and stench of the stable in Bethlehem.

Great effort was put into enabling the believer to grasp the humanity of the Christ Child, the humility, the tenderness. The Virgin Mother was shown increasingly as a younger girl, herself of poor means, rather than as the royal Queen of heaven, draped in imperial purple and lain out on a beautiful mattress of the finest red and golds. The Christ Child was no longer given the face of the ancient of days, but shown as an oridanary baby just as he would have looked all those years ago. This I called devotional rather than Liturgical art. This all took place within the art of the church building, at first as an occasional innovation, but in time it came to first dominate and then replace the iconographic art of the liturgical space, especially I suspect after the Black Death and the popularity of the devotion to Christ’s sufferings on the Cross and the growing popular devotion to the Wounds of Christ and the Way of the Cross.

After a millennium there was a need I would accept to reconnect with the historical moments of Christ’s life and death, and to renew the rather heavily imperialised iconography of both the eastern and western churches as they had become more and more entertwined with the life of the states and especially the ideas and exercise of monarchy, serfdom and chivalry. It was a revolutionary movement to liberate Christian art from the subliminal messages of endorsement of the imperial ideal by God himself, and the opening up of a Christendom for a more humanistic vision of the human person and society. However, these developments which focused on the realities of the present gradually weakened the sense of the immenance of the eternal.

Perhaps the greatest blow came at the Reformation, where the sense of the transfiguration of time was blown away almost completely. The whole order of the world and society around this transfiguration of time and space was dismissed as superstition, the physical was derided as fallen and sinful, and the dominance of words and ideas replaced a sense of the engagement with the spiritual with more than the interior life. Religion became something reduced to the interior and invisible, of thoughts and ideas, of emotions and psychology. Works, that is deeds, were deemed irrelevant and faith alone mattered. This shattered the sense of Liturgical time and all the churches East and West have, I believe, suffered enormously because of it.

The renewal of Christianity will come, I believe, when we regain a sense of this Resurrected time, of the displacement of death, the end point of things, with eternity. When we re-focus on the space of the Liturgy as an encounter such as I described at the outset of this piece, then we can regain credibility with those seeking the Truth that we find in the words and the Person of Christ. In English we have a phrase, out of sight, out of mind, and it is no mistake that the Christian faith has been irradicated in those countries where Christian imagery of any kind was abandoned, and where eventually even Catholic art came to be reduced to the level of the devotional and the merely symbolic. The reconversion of Europe must take place at the level of the restoration of the Resurrection as the defining reality affecting all our life, but first and foremost how we celebrate the Liturgy, because here we have the experience of Christ Risen and time transfigured at least as a foretaste. To do this eastern iconography offers us an invaluable insight and tool with which to shape the Eucharistic space visually in terms of a language shaped by the transformation of time and which has developed over a millennia and a half, as well as being mandated in the seventh ecumenical council. We have the tools, but do we have the wisdom and courage to do it?


Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Bethlehem Icon Centre, a Pontifex University Partner, Featured in Times of Isreal, Daily Mail, Yahoo News and Drudge

Here is a great article in the Times of Israel about iconographer and teacher Ian Knowles and the school he founded in Bethlehem, the Bethlehem Icon Centre. In fact this seems to have gone viral. On the same day earlier this month it appeared also in the UK’s Daily Mail, and Yahoo News in the US, which in turn was picked up by Drudge Report, of all sites. So amongst the headlines about Trump, Clinton, Syrian bombing, McConnel et al was the link ‘Ancient sacred art resurrected in city of Jesus’s birth’,

Beauty will save the world!

The Icon Centre offers a two-year diploma and a series of shorter workshops during the year. Pontifex University has partnered with the Bethlehem Icon Centre and students of the MSA program can take its courses as part of the studio requirement. Anyone who is interested in pursuing iconography as a career should consider doing their courses and especially their diploma. The combined cost of fees and accomodation work out, after currency conversion from the US dollar, GB pound or the Euro, at a fraction of the cost of any residential art course that I know of.

The two-year program is done in three eight-week terms. In accordance with the traditional cycle of year and parallels the Oxbridge term times (readers of the Way of Beauty will understand the theological significance of this!)

Read the article in the Times of Isreal here.


Conference on Restoring Affordable Catholic Health Care in San Francisco

Saturday April 29th.

Presented by Pontifex University Professor, Dr Michel Accad in Partnership with the Archdiocese of San Francisco

Bringing Catholic social teaching into the provision of medicine.

Dr Accad will teach philosophy of nature and philosophical anthropology for Pontifex University this coming Fall as part of the Master in Sacred Arts program. This shows how grasping the beauty of man is necessary for us to love him. Love is our Christian vocation and should be the governing principle in all our human relations. This is true whether painting mankind or treating him or simply offering a cheery hello to the bus driver!

Fr Sebastian Carnazzo Talk on Philippians – Free Live Webinars, April 25 and May 2

Pontifex University Professor, Fr Sebastian Carnazzo is giving two webinars for the Institute of Catholic Culture. You can join him live on consecutive Tuesdays – April 25th and May 2nd at 5pm PST, 8pm EST and register via the Institute of Catholic Culture site. They will be recorded, but it is a great experience to be there with him live as he speaks.

This is a great chance to hear Fr Carnazzo who is an inspiring speaker.

Of course, every Wednesday evening you get a chance to join the parish of St Elias Melkite Catholic Church, where Fr Carnazzo is pastor, for his weekly free webinar which is part of his parish education program. All that Fr Carnazzo is in accord, incidentally with his Bishop’s ‘rule’ for parish life – a program for a thriving and evangelizing parish which was presented by Bishop Nicholas in his recent address to the St Elias men.

For those of you who are not aware of the Institute of Catholic Culture. This is  wonderful organization which is devoted to the evangelization of the culture and there are many hours of free material available in their library. All you have to do is register on their site and you get access to wealth of material…including some recordings of talks by yours truly!

Concerts of Newly Composed Work by Frank La Rocca in Galway, London and San Francisco

As mentioned in passing in a piece I wrote a couple of days ago, a new composition by American composer Frank La Rocca will be premiered later this week. So for the benefit of those who might wish to attend, but didn’t make it to last paragraph of my article… Ne irscaris Domine will be performed in Galway in Ireland and Oakland California on April 29th. This means that because of the times zones Ireland has the privilege of offering us the world premiere!. And then in different locations in London and California on May 7th, 13th and 14th. For details go to his website

You can hear examples of his music on his website here,

Bridging the Gap – Music for Entertainment That Speaks of the Liturgy

If we are to evangelize the culture we need creative artists, in all disciplines, that connect with people today. This is the primary and achievable aim, in my opinion, of the study of the arts as an academic discipline. It is not so much to develop the taste of the consumer and create a market for the traditional approach, as it is to form the creators of new works that participate in the traditional principles in new ways. The goal of these newly formed creators is then to connect with ‘the many’ – to use the phrase of Benedict XVI in this context – through the power of beauty expressed in such a way that even the untutored might respond to it.

This, is as far as I am aware, the way it was always done. The number of people who formally study Christian culture in school or college is not great today, but it is still, for all the fact that it is proportionately small, probably far greater in number than ever before. How many of those converts who converted to Christianity in the period of the early Church in the Roman empire had a liberal arts education I wonder? I do not know but I’ll bet it was pretty low. Yet once it was given freedom to flourish, a Christian culture emerged from a pagan cultural foundation; just as it can emerge again from the neo-pagan cultural backdrop that predominates in the West today.

If those who animate, design, direct, paint, sculpt, write and compose get it right, then their work will engage people today and stimulate their receptivity to God. Ultimately that will take place, most likely in connection with the artistic forms that are in the liturgy and in an encounter with God in the Eucharist, but it might also be via an intermediary aspects of the culture that are derived from and point to the liturgical. This is like the layers of an onion, or the spheres in an Aristotelian universe, in which the outer ring directs us to the next inner ring and by degrees we make the transition to epicenter.

So, to illustrate with the example of music, we still need composers of three-minute popular ditties as much as we need composers of highly elevated music or liturgical music. In today’s fragmented culture we need a whole variety of different forms that will appeal to different types of people at a superficial level and which in turn stimulate in them the beginnings of a desire for something greater. At the heart of the diagram below, at the end of the Christian’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, is the Eucharist. Christ is the node through which we pass and which connects us to the outer Prime Mover from which all of this originates. (Incidentally, I would say that looking from where we sit right now, the earth is the center of the universe as it is quite reasonable to consider the place of the other heavenly bodies relative to where we view them from…but that’s another debate!)

The measure of the quality of such modern creativity is the power and nature of the effect it has on those who hear it. The best music will be accessible to its intended audience (which not be all people, but most likely a particular section of the population) and stimulate in them a desire for something higher. The highest forms are those which are connected to the liturgy and the function of these is to lead people to God Himself in the Blessed Sacrament. This is why, however popular Christian ‘popular’ music might be and however many people might attend Masses with such music in the context of the liturgy, there is no place for such musical forms. (In fact it usually isn’t really all that popular despite what people tell you, see my article here on the subject.) Just because people are listenting to it and enjoying it, doesn’t mean that it is doing the work of directing people to the Eucharist as powerfully as it should.

We need exclusively liturgical forms, with chant having preeminance, which have the highest potential to open hearts to God in the context of the worship of Him. Even here we must have new composition too. I would not want to displace the canon of chants for the Mass, but there must be, I suggest, newer compositions that participate in this tradition for the overall impact to have real power with the greatest number of people.

As mentioned, while there is no place for superficiality in the liturgy, superficiality does have its place outside the church! There is a place for superficiality, and that is to engage people and a superficial level and prime them to engage with something deeper. Therefore we need inspired composition and creativity across the whole spectrum of entertainment in wider culture too.

The argument applies to all art forms, not just music; and to those art forms that have no direct place in the liturgy, such as film and video. Creativity in these areas ought to stimulate the potential for receptivity of the forms that are in the liturgy. So the drama of movies will prime the viewer to be receptive to the presentation of the human story of redemption that is realised in the Mass through other media, as explained here. Moviemakers who do this will not only do the greatest service to mankind, but will also make the most popular and lucrative films!

Recently I was sent this video of a performance of Schubert’s Ave Maria for the Italian senate by the Italian trio, Il Volo (h/t Gareth Genner, President of Pontifex University).

Here is evidence that beautiful music can be very popular if performed well. By all accounts these three young men (whose pop-star good looks no doubt draw in a few additional admirers) speak without inhibition of the importance they place on family values. It is a good thing that such music is still popular but we can rely solely on the good music of the past to do this..

While Schubert can be heard occasionally in the context of the liturgy, it is not, I suggest, genuinely liturgical music. Rather, it is higly elevated profane music that bridges the gap between the sacred and the mundane and its true place is the concert rather than the liturgy. This particular piece of music was not originally written for the Latin prayer at all, as it happens. It was originally a setting for a German translation of a poem, beginning with the same words ‘Ave Maria’ written by Sir Walter Scott. For all its power now, it will have been most powerful in fulfilling its function I suggest with the original text and for the ears of its original intended audience, who were the Austrians of 1825.

We need Schuberts for today too, who will compose this ‘bridging music’ for us today and is for the concert hall. To my mind, such a person is the American composer Frank La Rocca. His music has its place in that first concentric ring outside the strictly liturgical. Unlike Shubert’s Ave Maria, much of his music is inspired directly by sacred texts and themes and so is certainly not out of place as meditative or devotional music in the context of the liturgy; but it is as likely to be as effective and therefore popular, I suggest, in the concert hall. May there be more like him!

Frank has a newly composed piece, Ne irascaris Domine (Be not angry O Lord..) that premiers in a variety of locations in Europe and the US in April and May. There are concerts in Galway, Ireland and Oakland, California on April 29th; and in London on May 7th. Judging from the regularity of concerts of his music taking place as indicated on his website, here Frank is steadily gaining ground in connected with people today.

The Apostolic Blueprint for a Parish, the Model of Christian Community in the Modern Age

There is lots of discussion today about the loss of community and how the parishes, even those that seem well attended, don’t seem to be the center or the community any more.

A common response is to look to the monastic model as an antidote. My sense is that the current interest in the much vaunted Benedict Option, in which hope for the West is placed in a Benedictine led spiritual revival is as much about fulfilling a desire for Christian community as it is for the transformation of the culture. Others have painted a picture of the medieval village with its houses clustered around the monastery as the families walk to Vespers in the gothic abbey church.

The disadvantage for such an arrangement can be that the spiritual heart is a religious community which, by its nature, is separated from the rest of the world and therefore also from the lay people who identify themselves as part of the lay extension of that community. This is not an insurmountable problem and there is nothing wrong with this if those involved don’t mind this and if the fruits of it are positive, but given the low number and often the remoteness of monastic communities, even if we put aside the difficulties, it isn’t a realistic option for most until they can retire to rural France…or Oklahoma..or wherever it may be.

I have seen people try to create lay communities of working people and their families by trying to encourage those who join to live a compound of homes where all subscribe to some modified Benedictine rule. The drawback here is that it is difficult to overcome the conflict between the demands of community and of family life – there is often a tension between the two. Some seem to manage it, but others in extreme cases can have a cultish feel to them. Such communities are by necessity strongly heirarchial if they are to avoid falling into anarchy – ultimately someone or a small group of people are in charge over decisions in daily living that effect others – this immediately creates conflict because that community authority or influence will tend interfere with, or even undermine, the natural authority of parents in the family.

Such a conflict rarely arises in parish life because beyond attendance, the parish itself does not impose rules at all beyond what the Church as a whole requires. There is no rule for parish life, that I am aware of, in the way that there are rules for religious communities. But this is also the source of a weakness for the parish as a basis of community. The connection is usually so loose that it is rare, nowadays at least, for people to feel bound to it at all.

This is where the need for a set of principles for parish community might come useful and this is what I heard described recently.

St Elias Melkite Catholic Church, in Los Gatos, California had their annual visit from the bishop, Most Reverend Nicholas J. Samra Eparchial Bishop of Newton recently. I attended Vespers and beforehand he spoke encouraging words, exercising his pastorial role as Bishop. The subject of his talk was how a parish can be a genuine community or as a put it, part of the Church and not simply a social club.

He began by going back to scripture and in particular he analysed the growth of the early Church as described by the Acts of the Apostles. He pointed out how the descriptions of the early gatherings seemed to point to four ministries that we should replicate today.

First (of course!) worship: Divine Liturgy (or Mass) and the Divine Office in the Church. Then he spoke of the need to take that worship back into the home by the establishment of the Domestic Church where the occupants of a house (not always families, this can be people living on their own or single people sharing somewhere) pray the Divine Office to their icon corner. St Elias’s pastor, Fr Sebastian Carnazzo has produced free booklets which he gives to everyone who walks into the church called Daily Prayer for Melkites. This give a simple stripped down version of the more complex, monastic derived full Morning and Evening Prayer, which families can do and by which they participate in the fuller monastic influenced form that a church might do at Vespers or Orthros. In doing this they are dispersing the liturgy across time and space and taking the Church out to their homes.

Second is social – he talked of the regular organization of social events and especially meals connected to the worship and how newcomers should be spotted and invited to attend the coffee social/meal after the Liturgy. Again, this structure of communal meals after worship can be replicated in the home. There is something wonderful about a social event in a home which is Vespers followed by a meal. He spoke also of how an apparently thriving parish can, detrimentally, also have this social element emphasized at the expense of the others so creating a social club and not a church. In the long run a parish that does this will die. When it is done properly, the hope will be that this will naturally generate friendships and social cohesion beyond the church, so creating a social fellowship amongst the parish community which supplements and derives its strength from those parish based social events and ultimately the fellowship of the Spirit and the liturgy.

Third is education. He spoke of how great a need there is for constant mystagogy of adults and instruction of the children and that churches should hold classes for both. The children, he said, should be instructed in the church, in the ideal, by a couple so that it establishes as a habit in the children the practice of looking to parents in the home for education and instruction. And that, of course, is the next step here – the education of the children in the home by the parents.

Fourth is charity – almsgiving. This is the spirit of love by which people donate time and money for the care of others in the church, in the community and beyond. Some of that time will be spent in contributing freely to ministries that provide these four parish functions. Again, we see the model being set in the parish, and then supernatural transformation of those involved so that they take their enhanced capacity to love out to their fellows. This dispersed charity, if I can call it that, participates in that which should be at its greatest in the parish.

Bishop Nicholas suggested that apart from the functions that are necessarily performed by a priest, these are ministries that lay people should take responsibility for. And in the ideal they will never be onerous for anyone. As he described it, this is a natural organization of community and each of us has charism that suits us to work within one form or another of these ministries. In short, we are made to be members of the Church and if not religious, very likely part of a parish, so when we find our natural niche by which we contribute most powerfully to parish life, we will flourish in a special way as part of it. This would be a true flowering of a liturgically centered ‘charismatic’ movement. Furthermore when you have people who are doing what comes naturally to them as part of these ministries, then we shine with the light of Christ and people will see something in us, and this will in turn attract them to parish life.

What he was presenting was a simple ‘rule’ for parish life. A set of guidelines by which if the congregation chooses to participate is likely to lead the establishment of a thriving church; and when each is in place the fifth element occurs spontaneously – evangelization.

He was in fact outlining a simple template for the project management of the new evangelization!…which is the same as the old evangelization, and is in fact the oldest evangelization.

It occured to me also, that this is a possible pattern for communities that are not monastic but perhaps bound together in some other way. Little neighborhood groups of families and single people – maybe in an apartment block – can each have their own domestic churches in their separate home and apartments, but then gather together from time to time as little parish sub-communities gathering in the home of one, reinforcing this parish template for community in all.

I think this may be a practical answer to the desire for community in modern man. Most of us are meant to be parish people, not monastic people (which is a special calling) and when life is organized on the pattern of the ideal pattern we will flourish and evangelize others.

The more it is replicated outside the church in different social groups the more it will create a bond of community for that particular grouping, while simultaneously priming those who have never been to church for participation in the parish community; and further developing the bond to it in those who already have a parish life.

Amongst those who are thinking about the decline of community and Christian culture in the West there is a tendency to assume that the establishemnt of the post-Enlightenment model of a city is the one of the culprits – perhaps industrialization and electronic communication, and the existence of giant connurbations of millions of people is part of the problem. This is the back-to-the-land, recreate-a-village outlook. There may be something to this, but I do wonder sometimes if this is not based upon an idealized view of what villages and working on the land used to be like. My instincts tell me that the sense of alienation arises not so much from the environment, as it much is within the person who is alienated. If I feel alienated then I must become more of a community person; it is by offering fellowship and community to others that I feel part of a community myself. This therefore, can happen wherever there are people. I should redirect my work into an effort to participate in the church-as-community in the fullest sense.

Again, this doesn’t mean that we all need to live in a village or even within walking distance of our local church; that parish community can be dispersed quite wide permeating a wider population base and still be strong. The old maxim – you get what you give – seems to be the operating principle here and in a city there always people nearby to whom I can offer community. Regardless of whether or not they accept it, I will change in the effort to bring it to them. Certainly, I should admit, Bishop Nicholas’s address made me ask a few questions of myself.

The paintings are all by LS Lowry, who made his name painting the industrial landscapes of the mill towns in Greater Manchester in England after the Second World War.

Literature, History and the Human Story as Manifested in the Culture

I recently heard a lecture as part of his Pontifex Univeristy class entitled The Bible and the Liturgy, given by Fr Sebastian Carnazzo, in which he explains how the Bible is primarily a liturgical document. This is an inspiring class that, for me, connects the whole educational ethos of Pontifex in the bible and the liturgy – in accord with the Catholic understanding of education – ultimately the role of our teachers is to direct all of us to the Teacher who offers divine wisdom.

The study of Scripture in the classroom is valuable, of course, but as the lecture explains, primarily it is to the degree that it deepens our reception of the Word in a liturgical setting. Through the readings and chants of the words of Scripture in the Mass, Divine Liturgy and Divine Office, we are evangelized and catechized most powerfully. We are formed for supernatural transformation through Christ, and as evangelists who carry the word out to the unevangelized and uncatechized in the world.

The sources Fr Carnazzo uses to support this idea are the writings of the Church Fathers, the descriptions of the historical and current practices of the Church, especially in Her worship, and Scripture itself, as well as two recent books, The Bible and the Liturgy, by Jean Danielou, and Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity by Robin Jensen.

There has been so much in this course that was worth highlighting, but I want focus particularly one aspect which I found enlightening, namely, the Biblical descriptions of evangelization. This is done through the description of salvation history as the part of the ongoing story of humanity in which we are protagonists right now.

Fr Sebastian described to us how at various times, Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles and Saints of the early Church addressed the gathered people and told them their story. It would be modified according the assumed knowledge of those listening, sometimes starting with a description of the Creation, at others with Abraham. So, for example, we might think of Joshua talking to the Israelites before crossing the Jordan, or the martyr St Stephen addressing the Jews before he was stoned to death. The point was to make those listening, Jew or Gentile, understand that this is their story too, just as it is our story. The consummation of this story is in the reconciliation between God and man, through the Church, by the death of the old self – united to Christ crucified – in baptism; and by the rebirth of the new self – united to Christ’s resurrection and partaking of His divine nature – through Confirmation and the Eucharist.

The words of the liturgy and of scripture in the liturgy tell this story for us too, both prosaically and poetically, through the readings, the chanting of the psalms and canticles of the Church; they give us a mystagogical catechesis (one that deepens our grasp of the mysteries) so that we are prepared for that supernatural transformation in Christ that is available to us through the reception of Christ’s Body and Blood. All of this is made easier for us to grasp of course, when the external forms of the liturgy – the way in which it is celebrated, the art, the music and the architecture for example – are in harmony with this end.

This approach to evangelization, engaging outside the church building with people who do not have Christ – the telling of the story which was used by the early Church – works because it appeals to something that is deep within us. Every one of us knows instinctively that this is what we are made for. The task for each of us is to reveal that grand story, so that the listener can place his own personal story into the drama that it describes. Quite how we do this in the many situations that we are likely to deal with in life is another matter, but each of us will be able to to do it, with God’s grace, to varying degrees according to our calling. But, here is the key thing, it seems to me: our actions and words must point to this story that is the preaching of “Christ crucified.” At the very least, having a clear idea of what it is we are going to say is the most important thing. Much has been written about this elsewhere in the context of, for example, the New Evangelization; Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI speaks on the subject here and here.

This principle also tells us the purpose of the study of the history and great works of the culture. Taking history as a subject first: all history, to be of any human value, must be a participation in salvation history, and so must be seen as an aspect of Christian history. Just as every person has a story, whether he has lived his life as a Christian up to a given point or not, one that has the potential for a happy ending through the Church; so also every natural association within society has a story that, in the context of a Christ-centered view of history, participates in salvation history. This is why we need stories that reinforce these natural associations in a way that appreciates the natural hierarchy of each, and places the Church as the highest in value. (I am not arguing here for political power for the Vatican by they way). Therefore, the study of history can be a history of all peoples and all times, but always seen in the light of this principle. It should focus especially on the history of the societies that the person being taught belongs to, his country, his local neighborhood and for us, Western culture as Christian culture.

Just as important as the teaching of the facts of this history, is the teaching of what history is, why it is being taught, so that the student always places what they are learning into this context. This gives us a sense of our place in the world and where we are going, and whether or not we are on the right path. It also stimulates our faculty for seeing things historically, so that when we are presented with the ultimate expression of our history – salvation history in the liturgy – we are able to respond more deeply for the glory of God.

Poetry and literature tell our story in another way, the story itself is the same. In a wonderful talk last year at the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame, Alasdair MacIntyre spoke of the need for the reading of poetry, which preserves the collective memory of who we are. I was moved by what he said and agreed wholeheartedly, in principle. But I remember thinking at the time, this is fine for those who like poetry, but what about those like me who hate it. What was not said is that, like history, the teaching of poetry and the cultivation of an enjoyment of it ought to have an even higher end in mind. That end is the telling of my human story and the development of the faculty of responding poetically, so to speak, to the poetry in the liturgy and especially the psalms. What I now realize is that so much of the literature and poetry that I was taught years ago didn’t speak to me of my story, either because it wasn’t contained within it, or because I wasn’t taught how to see it. Whatever the reason, it was not pointing to the ultimate poetry that helps transform me and which, I now realize, I was longing for even before I found it in the liturgy of the Church prior to my conversion. Perhaps if it had been presented to me in this way, I might have responded differently.

I also think that I am not by inclination particularly literary or poetic (referring to written poetry) by nature. I respond much more to art and music. Therefore while I do now appreciate the value of introducing it to those who are naturally of a literary bent, we should not think only of the written or spoken word as ways of telling stories. In fact, the whole of the culture in some way ought to participate beautifully and gracefully in the telling of that story.

Art and music can do this through their beauty, not simply through the telling of a narrative, but through the cosmic beauty of form that can communicate truths beyond words. They can stimulate that deeply embedded faculty in our hearts that is receptive to the Word, the single encapsulation of whole of the story. In the end, by whichever route we get there, the goal is to be as literary as we can be in regard to scripture and the words of the literature. I feel no sense of guilt or lack in that I now rarely read a novel or poetry outside that context. I do pray the psalms daily and love them.

The images of the church should be directed to this end, in harmony with the liturgy, of course. This should be especially so in baptistries, where Christian initiation begins, along with the other rites of initiation from which it should not be separated in our minds (Confirmation and first Communion.)

This is a point that should be appreciated in designing an educational curriculum, I think. While all should be introduced to a canon of literature and poetry for reasons outlined, we should accept that not all will respond to it the same way, and not all will wish to spend their lives enjoying poetry. Part of the goal of such an education is to find those aspects of the culture to which we respond most readily and creatively, and through that door, stimulate our ability to know connaturally so that we can participate in the liturgy actively.

Connatural knowledge is sometimes also called synthetic or poetic knowledge (rather confusingly, I think, given that it is not about the means of communication of truth but about the form of knowing. This is not restricted to poetry or any written communication of the truth in the sense that the word is generally used today). Connatural knowledge is that intuitive grasp on the whole by which, for example, we know and love a person on meeting them, as one hopes to do when encountering Our Lord in the Eucharist.

This explains why the evangelization of the culture is so important. When the very fabric of our culture from top to bottom reflects aspects of this story it will be beautiful. Another speaker at the same conference last year, Roger Scruton, (who spoke on this occasion on the joys of wine) summed up the need for beauty in the culture succinctly in his book How to Be A Conservative: the beauty of the culture, he wrote, tells us we are “at home in the world.”

Here is one little piece of anecdotal evidence for the truth of this, taken from my own experience, something has happened since I first heard this and thought about it: I don’t think I have ever mentioned baptism when talking about the Christian life to non-Christians. This is something that I should mention, just as Philip mentioned it to the Ethiopian in Acts, as it will resonate with them in some way, appealing to their natural instincts. This is a bit of a preachy leap, for me but I resolved to look for opportunities…

With my brother, I have started a group here in the Berkeley, California area that meets weekly at St Jerome Catholic Church, and offers discernment of personal vocation. (We call it “The Vision for You.”) We aim especially to connect with people who are delving into New-Age spirituality and who are looking for a purpose in life. We present it as a series of spiritual exercises in the ‘Western mystical tradition’. While it is pretty obvious that what we do comes from Christianity, we do not demand the people become Christian in order to participate. Rather, using a sort of Pascal’s-wager approach, we suggest that if they are willing to try this, then they will feel the effects; this is precisely what was done to me nearly 30 years ago, and as a result I converted from atheism. The hope is that it will send people on that journey, just as it sent me; however, I tend to let people conclude for themselves what the source of the power that we have as a small group of people who are working their way through this.

At each workshop, those who have experience of the process share personal stories of working through it. I realize now that what we are doing is telling our stories and placing them in the context of our ultimate purpose as we see it. I do always mention that I became Catholic as a result. The last time I did so, I added something that I hadn’t before; I said that although I wasn’t Christian at all when I went through the discernment process, I am nevertheless very grateful to my parents for having had me baptized as an infant. I now believe, I said, that although I was unaware of why at the time, that this is what placed within me an additional facility for responding to God’s grace during the process, and this is why it was so life changing for me.

I could see some cringing a bit as I mentioned baptism and grace, but after the workshop was over someone approached me. He told me that he was ill with cancer and had never been baptized. He had assumed that it wasn’t worth it, but as a result of what I said, he was thinking that he might go through with it. I encouraged him to do so, of course.

This is just anecdotal and not definitive proof of anything, but it does help to convince me that this is something that I should try to include in any account of my story in future!

An ancient Ethiopian manuscript showing the first Ethiopian christian, baptised by St Philip, as described in the Acts of the Apostles.

St Teilo’s Church, Llandeilo Tal-y-bont

A young seminarian recently mentioned to me that he had been following with interest the discussions on the proposal that the School of St Albans might be an appropriate style to develop in today’s churches for the Roman Rite. I was pleased that he should say this, of course, and was excited further when he mentioned another 15th-century Welsh church that has wall paintings on a grand scale in this Gothic style.

What makes this an even better example to study is that it has been renovated to look exactly as it would have in the 1400s, and I think this shows more than ever that this might be a style which is appropriate for the liturgy and would be feasible to create today. It would be simple enough to execute, and naturally lend itself to an adapted form of expression that would connect with people today. You can see many more examples online here.

I would look for a better quality of draughtsmanship than we see in these drawings. (Remember that it was the artist Matthew Paris who first inspired this idea, and his drawing skill is far higher than that demonstrated by the artist who did these paintings). Nevertheless, I would look for the essential qualities to translate into modern form, with the right balance of naturalism and stylization/partial abstraction. These are, once again: form described by a line drawing; a simple color palette and simple washes for coloration, with minimal modelling and tonal work; the incorporation of geometric patterned work. For a canon of imagery and iconography, I would use that of the feasts and mysteries of the Faith as found in the Eastern Church as a core repertoire, with additions and subtractions appropriate to the West when necessary.

So, at the risk of inducing “St-Alban’s fatigue” dear reader, I am going to show these paintings but it will be last for while…I promise!

This church was relocated from its original site to one near Cardiff in the 1980s and so is preserved as a museum piece in this form.

By National Museum Wales – National Museum Wales, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By dw_ross from Springfield, VA, USA – 20140913_124921, CC BY 2.0,

By Lesbardd – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Dylan Moore, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Looking at the squint above, I wonder if this was made as a way to view the Blessed Sacarament from the main body of the church. The only other place I have seen something like this was in Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland, where the Blessed Sacrament was kept in chapel to the right of the main abbey, built in the 12th century; people in one of the transcepts who were not one of the cloister monks could look at the Blessed Sacrament, or if it was not exposed, the tabernacle.

By Archangel12 – St Fagans National History Museum, CC BY 2.0,

By Archangel12 – St Fagans National History Museum, CC BY 2.0,

By John Cummings – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,