Posted by: dowsmallgroups | 03/07/2013

Bl Pier Giorgio Frassati – a generous heart

The following reflection first appeared in Sparks of Light (WRCDT, 2012) and is reproduced here in honour of his feast day – 4 July.

Bl Pier Giorgio FrassatiHow often do we hear that we are living in uncertain times and how particularly challenging it is for young people today. The late Blessed Pope John Paul II did not live to see the crisis in the Eurozone, the widespread political unrest in the Middle East or to read about the massive numbers of young people struggling to find employment throughout the world. Yet, he chose to beatify a young man who experienced similarly trying times. As a teenager living in Italy during the years of the Great War (1914-18), Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati saw first hand its devastating impact on families, in particular the poor. When he entered university, it was expected that he become politically active and there he chose to join the Cesare Balbo, the Catholic Club. Given his strength and enthusiasm, he was soon waving their flag at demonstrations and speaking out against the growing threat of Mussolini’s fascist regime.

Rarely do we hear of a young person of such profound and fervent faith coming from a family where it was not at all encouraged. Perhaps this was another reason why our late Holy Father brought this young man to our attention. Although Pier Giorgio had been given every advantage: social status, financial security and material comforts, he refused to use them for his own gain. On the contrary, his faith, initially fostered by the Jesuits in high school, became the lens through which he viewed the world. While prayer and the Eucharist anchored each day, an unselfish kindness permeated his daily activities. Growing up, he was continually striving to share not only his worldly possessions but also his presence. From a young age he reached out, befriending those in need, seeking those little ways in which he could share their plight and to alleviate their suffering. Seeing the face of Christ in those that he met, Pier Giorgio sought out the places they lived, where they worked. It was while working with the poor that he contracted polio which quickly took his life.

Doing without so that others may have was second nature to Pier Giorgio. Living a frugal life, a life of temperance and moderation, is often considered joyless; associated with the ‘Victorian era’ and not contemporary living. The life of Blessed Pier Giorgio, however, shows temperance as something radical – a source of great joy. Instead of accepting the clear path of wealth and advantage offered by his family he moderated his own needs and was thereby able to relieve the suffering of many. Indeed when he died, his family were surprised at the number of poor and homeless who turned out to pay their respects to Pier Giorgio. Temperance freed him to be what God had called him to be, who he wanted to be and not what others would have had him be.

Pier Giorgio was born into wealth but lived charity. What could I do without, so that others may have a little? Much of what Pier Giorgio did was in quiet and unseen. Am I capable of doing good without acknowledgement?

Posted by: dowsmallgroups | 30/05/2013

Living in His Presence

Jordaens EucharistSt. Luke recounted Christ’s prophetic teaching – that humankind would be confronted by natural disasters and politically driven turmoil of such magnitude as to cause both mass destruction and great human loss. Yet, we are counselled not to be afraid – for Christ will always be with us.

While the Liturgy of the Word offers us direction as to how we are to live our daily lives in imitation of Christ, we are strengthened for our life’s journey through the gift of his body in Holy Communion. Although once the eucharistic celebration ends, we are not left to our own devices. The consecrated bread known as ‘the Blessed Sacrament’ is not placed in the tabernacle towards the end of Mass simply for convenient storage. On the contrary, Christ is with us at all times and we have what might best be described as ‘a standing invitation’ from Christ to spend some time with him during the course of our week. Somewhere in the darkened church, a red candle will be burning to indicate his Real Presence.

By extending his hospitality, Christ is offering each of us much more than a listening ear for our prayers and petitions. We are being invited to deepen our personal relationship with him. While the idea of silent dialogue with our transcendent God may initially seem rather unnatural, when we think of other close relationships, non-verbal communication is often the norm. People generally cherish the quiet moments spent with loved ones when unspoken thoughts are frequently exchanged and great comfort felt simply by another’s presence. Even very young children quickly grow to understand the meaning conveyed solely by a look on their parent’s face.

Undoubtedly, it takes time to develop a level of comfort and familiarity that enables one to connect at this level but Christ is waiting for each of us and hoping that we will want to get to know him better. By spending quiet time before the Blessed Sacrament, gazing at the tabernacle or monstrance, we can begin to feel Christ’s intimate presence within our being; to sense our connection with the Mystery of his Passion, Death and Resurrection. In these moments we come to recognise his mission as a framework for our day-to-day living. Rather than readily accepting society’s current tendency to focus on noise and busyness as well as the focus on individual and personal choices, our perspective may become more contemplative; a matter of ‘we’ as we come to understand that Christ with whom we were joined at baptism is with us always.

Amidst the demands of everyday life, the invitation to spend some quiet time with Christ – before the Blessed Sacrament – can easily be overlooked. But if we think of the trouble he has gone to on our behalf, how can we ignore it?

What time can I give to prayer with Jesus before the Blessed Sacrament? How can this practice fit more readily into my weekly prayer routine?

To use this as a small group session, you can download a fully edited version by clicking on the link here: Living in His Presence

Posted by: dowsmallgroups | 20/05/2013

St David Roldan-Lara – pursuing justice

The following reflection first appeared in Sparks of Light (WRCDT, 2012) and is reproduced here in honour of his feast day – 21 May.

St David Roldan-LaraOne of the greatest threats to this century is that of terrorism. Improvements in technology combined with the willingness of people to die in order to inflict damage on their enemies have made the world a dangerous place. When people think martyr, thoughts often turn to suicide bombers, those who kill for a cause giving up their own life into the bargain. Christian martyrdom is an altogether different thing. It seeks not to harm but to demonstrate love. It is not selfish but selfless. It ennobles the one dying for Christ and inspires those who encounter them. In the manner of his death, St Gregory Nazianzen calls Eleazar ‘the greatest of all those who suffered before the coming of Christ; as Stephen is first among those who endure suffering after Christ’.

As Eleazar and St Stephen died rather than giving up their faith, other Christian martyrs such as David Roldán-Lara, his cousin Salvador, and countless more have done the same over the centuries. The stories of Eleazar, St Stephen and St David Roldán-Lara tell of heroic resistance to tyranny. St Stephen, St David and Eleazar were given opportunities to deny their faith in return for their lives, however, all three died with the desire to serve God in their hearts, died as ‘memorials of courage’. Thanks be to God, not all of us are called to die for our faith. Each of us is, however, called to serve God – such service is to be characterised by love and is brought about by dying to ourselves, our pride and our desires.

One of the more striking moments during Holy Week is the washing of the feet, the Mandatum – Christ’s command to serve (John 13:34). Christ set the example for his followers: be the one who serves, avoid the conceit of pride. Value yourself by all means but value others and humbly seek to serve them with love. We followers of Christ are called to be constant and firm in our desire to give God and neighbour their due. To do this, to ‘die for God’ in the context of our daily lives, we require what St David recognised as God’s grace. To have the strength to face persecution and trouble we need God – it is impossible to rely simply and solely on your own power and wits. Living for others and for God means making sacrifices, it means tolerating life’s small hurts. Every stage of life has its ‘givings’ and ‘dyings’ and it is through these that we grow closer to Christ.

The Catechism tells us that a key component of justice is the determination to give their due to God and neighbour. What do I consider to be God’s due? What about my neighbours’? How can I serve both God and society?

Posted by: dowsmallgroups | 13/05/2013

Speaking to another’s heart

Primary School children's images of the Holy Spirit

Primary school children’s representations of the Holy Spirit – this ‘globe’ image featured on the cover of the Lord, Giver of Life booklet, published by WRCDT in 2009.

In the late 1870s and early 1880s Dr. Ludovic Zamenhof, a name to conjure with and a Jewish ophthalmologist from Bialystok at the time part of the Russian Empire, developed Esperanto. According to Zamenhof this language was created to foster harmony between people from different countries. His feelings and the situation in Bialystok may be gleaned from an extract from his famous letter to Nikolai Borovko around 1895.

‘The place where I was born and spent my childhood gave direction to all my future struggles. In Bialystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies. In such a town a sensitive nature feels more acutely than elsewhere the misery caused by language division and sees at every step that the diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies. I was brought up as an idealist; I was taught that all people were brothers, while outside in the street at every step I felt that there were no people, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews and so on. This was always a great torment to my infant mind, although many people may smile at such an ‘anguish for the world’ in a child. Since at that time I thought that ‘grown-ups’ were omnipotent, so I often said to myself that when I grew up I would certainly destroy this evil.’

At Pentecost we witness the birth of the Church, we witness the Spirit enabling the apostles who were previously ‘trembling with fear’ boldly proclaiming the Good News of Christ. They were able to be understood, the divisions of language disappeared, they spoke to the hearts of others.

How are we able to realise the dreams of Dr. Ludovic and the reality of Pentecost in speaking to the hearts of others? When we talk about our faith, do we make every effort to be understood?

Posted by: dowsmallgroups | 28/04/2013

Fill the Hearts of Your Faithful

Tower of BabelOne of the artworks included in the Diocese of Westminster’s 2013 Lenten resource, Amazing Grace, can be found in the Bedford Hours, a medieval manuscript once owned by the King of France and which is now housed in the British Museum Library. The illustration, shown right, depicts the story of the building of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). The Bedford Master prominently detailed a pulley, a winch mechanism and callipers as well as other items that were used to build a tower intended to take humankind into the heavens – all on their own, for their own personal benefit.

At the outset, one might think that the people in the painting are working together. However, on closer scrutiny, one can see several squabbles underway, people going off in different directions and one individual is actually falling from the upper reaches of the tower. The intent of the builders: ‘Let us make a name for ourselves’ is clearly set forth in Holy Scripture (Genesis 11:4). Adam found himself expelled from the Garden of Eden by his own selfish pride (Genesis 3:23) and God responded to the tower builders’ initiative in a similar manner. Where Adam and the people of Shinar (where the tower was built) decided to go it alone, to turn away from God’s help, the result was a lesson in humility. They no longer spoke the same language and were scattered throughout the world. Hence, the tower was termed ‘babel’, from the Hebrew word for confusion*.

Even amidst this chaos and confusion, God chose Abraham to begin the task of reconnecting humankind to himself. Eventually, God’s own plan, the story of our salvation, came to fruition when the Holy Spirit was sent forth on the day of Pentecost. No longer competing amongst themselves (Mark 10:35-45), the apostles met together ‘in communio’ as a community. Most importantly, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the message of Christ in different languages. The barriers to communication spoken about in the Babel story had been swept away.

Those basic building mechanisms used by the Babel builders may have long been replaced with modern technology enabling us to probe the far reaches of outer space or the confines of the tiniest of cells. Yet, the desire to reach that pinnacle of success, to be God-like, albeit in our work or personal lives, continues to prevail. Self-sufficiency and personal privacy remain highly valued, however the Scripture passage we have just read is one of unity in diversity and of interconnectedness. Our communion with one another in Christ’s body and the gift of the Holy Spirit, sacramentally given to each of us in baptism (CCC, 1241), must not be forgotten.

For whom am I trying to make a name – for myself or for God? If I take any pride in my own efforts do I acknowledge their start in the gifts I have received from God and the work and influence of others?

* the same word also means the ‘gate of the God’

To use this as a small group session, you can download a fully edited version by clicking on the link here: Fill the Hearts of Your Faithful

Posted by: dowsmallgroups | 27/04/2013

St Gianna Molla – seeking God’s will

The following reflection first appeared in Sparks of Light (WRCDT, 2012) and is reproduced here in honour of her feast day – 28 April.

St Gianna MollaYou may recall a news article, from 2012, which recounted the story of a young expectant mother confronted with a potentially life threatening tumour growing on her heart. Doctors put forward various options to diffuse this ‘ticking time-bomb’ but the young mother to- be chose to postpone any surgery until her unborn child was closer to term. In her words, ‘I wanted him to have a chance to survive before me.’

Although the article did not disclose the young woman’s family background or faith tradition, her heroic decision echoed that of another young mother, Gianna Molla. Many may wonder why Blessed Pope John Paul II chose to canonise Gianna in the concluding years of the twentieth century? Was it solely the selfless act that tragically took her life or was there more?

On the surface, Gianna’s life does not seem appreciably different from others living at that time. However, having grown up in a family of strong faith and with maturity well beyond her years, she soon saw her entire life through the prism of that faith. For a time, she seriously considered becoming a medical missionary and following in the footsteps of her brother, a Capuchin priest working in Brazil but, after prayerful consideration, she determined that her lack of physical stamina was a sign to set aside this idea – that this was not the road God had called her to live.

Building on the cornerstones of her daily life: prayer and Holy Mass, Gianna sought to live the gospel message in the world – in Christ’s vineyard. Besides her charitable work among the poor through the St Vincent de Paul Society, she was a devoted leader of Catholic Action with responsibility for the formation of youth. As a highly trained, medical doctor, Gianna viewed her physician’s work as a matter of both body and soul. Encouraging her colleagues not to forget the patient’s soul, she reminded them that these two are separate entities but united. She wrote: ‘God so inserted the divine into the human that everything we do assumes greater value.’ Gianna meditated long and prayerfully on God’s will for her. ‘What is a vocation’ she wrote: ‘It is a gift from God- it comes from God Himself! We should enter onto the path that God wills for us not by “forcing the door,” but when God wills and as God wills.’ Gianna believed she was called to marriage and family life and she waited patiently for God’s will to be revealed. (St. Gianna Molla, page 8)

In Gianna we have the example of an intellectually gifted woman who could have done anything with her life. After discerning a possible missionary vocation and embarking on a career as a doctor, Gianna Molla, this prudent woman, found her path to holiness as a wife and mother. Illuminated and guided by the light of Christ she loved life and lived it fully. Prudence was not something she fell into but came from her repeated search for the will of God. Her final decision and act was to save the life of her unborn child, she would not have had it any other way.

When making a decision it would be sensible to take your time and to consult the experts, however, the right decision can sometimes be what is not commonly-held, comfortable or easy. How can I ensure that the ‘right’ way takes precedence over the easy way? How am I able to achieve good and avoid evil in my decision-making? 

Posted by: dowsmallgroups | 26/03/2013

A deeply personal sacrament

We are Christians only if we encounter Christ… Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen One do we really become Christians… (Pope Benedict XVI, 3 September 2008).

Given that many of us were baptised as infants, our first lived encounter with Christ may not compare to that which captured St. Paul’s attention on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19). Yet, at our own baptism we were each called by name and invited to become a child of God. Each of us were anointed with the gift of the Holy Spirit and united with Christ in his mystical body. Through his earthly body, the Church, we were joined with our fellow human beings to love as Christ so loved.

We are reminded of this great gift of baptism – the gift of new life in Christ when we pray the ‘Our Father’ and join in the sacramental life of the church.  Most notably, in the celebration of Holy Eucharist, we encounter Christ in the readings of Holy Scripture, the gathered assembly, the priest in persona Christi and in the bread and wine which become for us the body and blood of Christ.

Our relationship with God is called to be a deep and personal one. Christ invited us to call God ‘Father’, an intimate and familial bond. As with any personal relationship, however, differences can and do arise and, try as we might, we often turn away, though action or inaction, from our ever-loving Father. While God remains faithful in love for each one of us, our decision to turn back to God – to be reconciled – may happen straight away of may take place years later.  The late Blessed John Paul II speaks of this ‘inmost change of heart’ as a ‘personal conversion’ that begins with a deeply personal matter, the acknowledgement of ‘one’s own sin.’ (Reconciliation and Penance, 4, 13) It can be extremely difficult to admit personal responsibility for the wrongs in our life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church usefully explains repentance as an ‘ endeavour of conversion [which] is not just a human work but the movement of a “contrite heart” drawn and moved by grace to respond to the merciful love of God who loved us first.’ (CCC, 1428)

In face of this intensely private desire to rest again in the loving embrace of our Lord, the Church offers us the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  While visible items – water, bread and wine accompanied by the spoken word make Christ present in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, respectively, in the sacrament of reconciliation, the priest serves in “persona Christi” – in the person of Christ. It is Christ who heals in this sacrament, it is he who reconciles us and restores our personal relationship with the Lord.  While our spoken words – the verbal acknowledgement of our sins help us to commit to resolve not to sin again, the priest’s healing words of absolution are the sacramental sign of resurrection, enabling us to begin again our baptismal gift of new life in Christ.

Just as we are baptised individually with water poured over our heads and we each partake of Christ’s body and blood through the celebration of Holy Eucharist, the Church recommends individual confession to heal and effect the reconciliation with God that takes place within our inner most beings. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the gift of a loving God and, as Pope Francis reminds us, ‘The Lord never tires of forgiving, it is we who tire of asking for forgiveness’ (Angelus, 17 March 2013).

To use this as a small group session, you can download a fully edited version by clicking on the link here: A Deeply Personal Sacrament

This blog entry was contributed by Margaret Wickware

Posted by: dowsmallgroups | 01/03/2013

A new heart create in me, O Lord

St ValentineIn mid-February, the shop windows were emblazoned with signs reminding us to purchase valentines for our loved ones.  Being most commonly referred to as ‘Valentine’s Day’, the story of St. Valentine, a young Roman soldier who was martyred for his faith seems now pretty much forgotten.  Yet, with all of these references to love on every corner and the surprising news about our much beloved Holy Father – Pope Benedict XVI who stepped down yesterday (28 Feb) from the See of St. Peter – his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, God is Love (“DCE”) came to mind. I thought it would be rather timely reading for Lent, in particular,  Part II entitled, Caritas – the Practice of Love by the Church as a “Community of Love”.

Through Lent, we attempt to refocus, to convert our hearts and minds in preparation for the renewal of our baptismal vows during the Holy Saturday vigil. Although this “radical reorientation” may seem to be an intensely private matter, it is not solely of our own doing or for our own benefit. Through our Lenten observances: prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we ask God for his grace – his blessing “to harmonize our hearts with Christ’s heart and to move them to love [our] brethren as Christ loved [us] (DCE 19).

In the rush to purchase that special card for a loved one, St Valentine’s martyrdom is generally forgotten. Similarly,  the intimate link between faith and charity seems rather obscure, the latter becoming simply  a matter of good citizenship -of writing a cheque for a favourite charitable cause.  In his first encyclical, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on Holy Scripture to remind us of the essence of  our faith: ‘love of neighbour, grounded in the love of God, is first and foremost a responsibility for each individual’ and ‘as a community ’ (DCE 20). Underlining the communal nature of our faith as lived by the early Christians (refer Acts 2:44-5), he made clear that almsgiving is by no means third and least of our Lenten observances. Together the proclamation the word of God, the celebration of the sacraments, and the exercise of charity are indispensable parts of our very beings as Christians and members of the Church. This Lent, we ask our Lord for a new heart. (Eze 36: 26)

This blog entry was contributed by Margaret Wickware

Posted by: dowsmallgroups | 08/02/2013

St Josephine Bakhita – a sign of hope

The following reflection first appeared in Sparks of Light (WRCDT, 2012) and is reproduced here in honour of her feast day – 8 February.

St Josephine BakhitaOne of the things that the Lord invites us to do during Lent is to let go of past hurts and hand them over to him for his healing touch so that we can become whole again. A desire to receive his healing, his forgiveness and to forgive others is essential to the work of grace. With the Lord’s help, as the life and example of St Josephine Bakhita teaches, we will be able to do day-by-day what others regard impossible.

It would have been easy for St Josephine to have let her early life shape her in a way that meant she was embittered and closed off to others, especially from friendship and love. Despite everything that she endured she broke the cycle of sin and pain choosing to let go and begin a new life with God as her spiritual Master. Pope Benedict XVI highlighted in Spe Salvi (In Hope we are Saved) that, she ‘helps us understand what it means to have a real encounter with this God for the first time,’ (SS, 3) and to experience God’s transforming power.

As Christians we are called to witness daily to someone beyond ourselves, whose strength becomes our strength, especially when people hurt us and things don’t go as we had hoped. Josephine sought and received the grace to let her ongoing relationship with Christ shape her past, present and future, freeing her from all that enslaved her.

Through knowledge of Christ Josephine was ‘redeemed’, both in terms of being freed from actual slavery, but also interiorly she discovered what it means to live as a free child of God. Her physical scars did not hinder her because she lived the reality that God’s power is greater than every evil, every sin. Josephine’s life teaches us that although the road to holiness is often marked by times of intense suffering, this is not the end of the story. With God’s grace, if we surrender all that we are to him, we can be healed, reconciled and forgiven, and in turn can be a signpost for others to the source of those gifts. We can come to understand that trials can bring blessing with God’s help.

One of the things that marked Josephine’s life was that her sanctity was not proved in a solitary act but it was lived daily. From her conversion she chose to embrace goodness, love, joy and humility. Each day of her religious life she strived to open the door with smile and offer a comforting word to visitors. She did the same to witness to God’s love through all her daily activities. Convent life must have brought its own challenges and yet she remained constant, handing over all that she was to Jesus.

We are invited to do the same, to let go and live in expectant hope, remaining constant whatever befalls us, fixing our gaze on our heavenly Master in whom we find everything.

If I had experienced all that St Josephine had experienced as a slave would I have responded in the same way as her, or instead succumbed to temptation becoming embittered, angry and self-pitying? Can I identify any good, any blessings, that have come out of awful experiences in my life? Who and what sustains me during life’s trials?

Posted by: dowsmallgroups | 25/01/2013

That saved a wretch like me?

In the Letter to the Hebrews, the author quotes Psalm 8 in encouraging the Christian community, he writes:

What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour. 

I suppose we can tend to look at our lives in two ways – reflecting on the Scripture passage above we can hold that we really are quite something, ‘crowned with honour’, a bit special. Alternatively we, conscious of sin, can feel as far from that description as it is possible to be. The reality, one can say with relative confidence, is somewhere in between. When Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his document announcing the Year of Faith, Porta Fidei, he was talking about all of history but perhaps the interplay between holiness and sin can be seen in our own lives too, even from day to day:

One thing that will be of decisive importance in this Year is retracing the history of our faith, marked as it is by the unfathomable mystery of the interweaving of holiness and sin. While the former highlights the great contribution that men and women have made to the growth and development of the community through the witness of their lives, the latter must provoke in each person a sincere and continuing work of conversion in order to experience the mercy of the Father which is held out to everyone (Porta Fidei, 13).

This, in a nutshell, is the theme of the Lent 2013 booklet from the Diocese of Westminster, Amazing Grace, – i.e. the interweaving of sin and holiness in our lives and the joy that can be had through reconciling ourselves to the Father, acknowledging both sin and love in our lives and living the life we receive at baptism. You can see the resource here; we pray that it helps you in your journey of faith.

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