An elaborate way to a simple faith?

Today this will be a somewhat more personal post, written more as a way to sort out my own thoughts than for the edification of any (regular) readers that I might have. That being said, I hope you’ll forgive me if it seems a bit clunky and disconnected.

These past two years – especially the last one – have seen a reduction in blog posts, not because I didn’t feel I had anything to say, but rather because I have been digesting ideas and events in my life. With all that has happened I have been put in a position where I have had to re-evaluate what it means to be a Catholic: things and people that one needed to agree with; things one needed to do; ways one needed to act; opinions one needed to hold; etc.

I believe reducing my Catholic blog reading some years ago to almost nil helped me to start down the path to some clarity. While initially I wished to be “up-to-date” with all that was happening in Rome, to keep abreast of the internal struggles, I found that this took away a lot of my inner peace. I took a step back and began to ask myself: “Do I really need to know these things? Are these bloggers in possession of all the facts? Is there anything that I can do in my state of life that can actually make a difference?” As I became more critical of the things I read, the more it seemed to me that most of the blogs were not informative, but just a form of gossip. And so, I snipped these off.

On another front, digging into history and actual parish registers and local ecclesial documents, I found a much “messier” and complex world than the nice and tidy narrative I heard from the pulpit. There were no good old days (which should have been obvious given saints and preachers of old have always been denouncing their own generation as the worst of all). To think that we live in some unprecedented time of crisis is to have historical blinders on. There really is nothing new under the sun. I began to have little patience for the facile narratives spread in certain circles. When I presented historical facts and documents to counter these narratives, I was normally met with confused silence or I was simply brushed off, especially the latter when I was dealing with clergy. No; there has never been a clean and tidy, “academic”, Catholicism.

This past year has seen an even greater polarisation of people everywhere. This polarisation has led to the most outlandish conspiracy theories. I have heard things from fellow Catholics and wondered “can you not hear how absurd and far-fetched these things you are saying sound; can you not hear your own words?” These things are then treated as dogma. “If you are a good, devout Catholic, you MUST believe this.” To this I would simply ask “Does being Catholic mean I must leave reason at the door? Does it mean I must be gullible and credulous? Because last I checked, that was not the case.” I sometimes wonder if a non-believer walked in off the street and heard certain conversations (or checked Catholic social media) would they be convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith, or would they immediately do an about face and run off? Still on the polarisation theme, I noticed people (even previously moderate people) entrenching themselves in the “us vs. them” mentality. Again, facile narratives, historical ignorance and pride have not helped this at all. I began to find ecclesial parochialism – focusing solely on Rome and forgetting that the Church is much greater than just the Latin church – or the downright disregard for non-Latin Catholics to be quite taxing.

I have tired of all kinds of monikers for Catholics – conservative, liberal, traditionalist, progressive, modernist, etc. They are useful, but only to a certain extent, and I often wonder if they actually haven’t lost their use, the way people bandy them about. We tend to categorise, to stick things into nicely classified, hermetically sealed boxes, to help make sense of the complex world we live in. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is when we forget that this is just a prop and mistake the model for reality. There is not one of us that fits into these nicely defined categories I mentioned. If there is someone, then they will be the exception that proves the rule. Conflating model and reality seems, to me at least, to then take one down some very strange rabbit holes in attempts to explain the “inconsistencies”.

These, and a few other issues, are what I have/had been grappling with. They made me realise the amount of things which I had assumed were part and parcel of Catholicism, of what it meant to be a “good Catholic” are actually not. They are not essentials. They are not dogmas. Many aren’t even doctrine. I dare say, a good portion is just ideology, in the pejorative sense.
So what then, you may ask, does it mean to me to be Catholic? I have come to the conclusion that, among other things, it means that one has to accept life in all its complexity and the uncertainty which that brings.
I am dogmatic about dogma (pardon the pun), but little more besides. In matters where there the Church allows for a diversity of opinion, I do not hold my own as the correct one.
Accepting life in its complexity has meant that my apparent foundations have washed away. The “absolute certainties” I had about certain things are gone.

Does that mean, however, that I am losing my faith? Have I stopped believing? How has this affected my living out my faith? As I mentioned above, much pruning has been in order. I have tried to refocus on the basics. I have redoubled my commitment to study the Fathers and the Scriptures. I have tried especially to keep my mouth shut, to speak only when asked to and only about those things which I have knowledge of. I have tried to “explain away” as much as possible the sins of others, reminding myself all the while that “there, but for the grace of God, go I”. I have reminded myself that many times much of the wrong in the world is due to ignorance and stupidity than rather pure malice. I have reminded myself that the world is Our Lord’s creation, and that He has left seeds of truth here and there for those who have not yet heard His Bride, so that when they do hear her they well recognise the Truth of which she speaks. I have realised that I don’t have to evangelise everyone I meet. I have my circumstances and station in life; first and foremost I am a husband and a father. That is where my main focus of evangelization lies currently – to ensure that I pass on the Faith to those closest to me. I remind myself of the need of conversion of life.

As the foundations of familiar and easy narratives wash away, you would think the edifice would come tumbling down. And yet, it has not. For as the sand is removed and the edifice totters, a rock foundation appears beneath, holding it from collapsing completely. As false certainties erode, the only true certainty makes itself known in a peculiar way. As unknowing looms large, He looms even larger. As one steps into the unknown, one clings to Him with all one’s might.

Can I make sense of all that is going on around me? Maybe not. But perhaps He does not ask me to make sense of it. He has never made my salvation dependent upon my understanding the world. Rather, he has made it childishly simple – to seek Him and to trust Him, as a child seeks its parents in the face of the strange world around it. As certainties slip away and I reach out to Him more and more, I have to ask – have the complexities of life put me on the path to a simple faith?

Kicking against the goads

Sometimes I am tempted to think that the path to sainthood would be so much easier if conditions X, Y and Z were met. If only I had a larger house, then I wouldn’t have the kids getting on my nerves and I could be a more patient man. If only I had that job, and I would have the pay that would allow my family a decent life. But perhaps where this line of reasoning is most prevalent is when it comes to other people. If only I didn’t have to deal with Such-and such, then I wouldn’t have these uncharitable thoughts about them; if I didn’t have to put up with So-and-so, then I’d be a much more patient person. This is especially true when it comes to those closest to us, to our own kin. Is it perhaps because “familiarity breeds contempt”? Is it because those that are the closest to us are so close that we, with our tendency to focus on negative, begin to notice all the small flaws? We come to see them no longer as a brother in Christ, with their own struggles, but as a problem that needs fixing – especially when it comes to the children. They are “broken” and somehow it falls on me to fix that apparent brokenness. We snip here, we tighten there, loosen a bit here and then we come up against a brick wall. We repeat, and yet again we bash our head upon that wall. And we repeat, and repeat, and repeat, until finally we rend our clothes and pull out our beard, throwing our hands up in despair saying “Oy vey! Why have I been cursed with this person? Why have I been given this thorn in my side?” Our view of that person ends up becoming vitiated, and we come to resent them; they can do no good in our sight.

Need a reminder?

But perhaps the perspective is all wrong. Perhaps that person is not broken; perhaps they are in fact a goad. No, that person is not a problem in need of fixing – not from me at least; rather the one who is in need of “fixing” is myself. That person is there for a reason – a reason I may not like, but which is vital to my salvation. That person is there to show me my own shortcomings, to show me how pride has given me a deluded sense of importance. My uncharitable reactions towards them, my little patience, my rolling eyes, my murmuring – is not all that kicking against the goad? Has the Lord not been long suffering in dealing with me? Has He not forgiven me time and time again – and will continue to forgive me – without the slightest resentment? Has He ever regretted creating me in light of all my infidelities?
Like a little child I know the rules, yet I still break them, sometimes knowingly, sometimes out of habit. I act petulantly. I mistreat His creatures. I forget that he has “remembered me in my low estate, and redeemed me from my enemies”; that He has “made me to pass through the midst of the Red Sea”; that “His mercy endureth forever”. He has done that not only for me, but as well for those I consider myself to be “burdened with”.

These proddings, I believe, are meant to illicit a question – Has the grace of God towards me been in vain?

And again a little while and you shall see Me

In my previous post I had mentioned how our recent reading of the Book of Leviticus – specifically the final curses – seemed to be quite apposite in our current situation. I ended that post by saying that there was one curse in particular that jumped out at me, especially as it seems to bear upon the present ecclesiastical situation. This curse, however, could be a blessing in disguise. That is the topic of today’s post.

[A]nd I will make your sanctuaries desolate, and will receive no more your sweet odours.

All over the world churches are closed to the lay faithful. The administration of the sacraments has been reduced to a bare minimum in many places, while in others it has ceased altogether.

How did we get here? While I previously stated that part of the problem is that nations have turned away from God, I believe that the greater part of the burden rests upon the shoulders of us Christians. I recall a friend back home making a similar comment after parliament approved the decriminalization of euthanasia. One of his acquaintances said that was impossible as practising Catholics are no longer the majority of the population. Yet while that may be true on a natural, statistical level, on the supernatural numbers have very little to do with it. As a Russian saint is supposed to have once said: acquire the Holy Spirit and thousands around you shall be converted.
Even now in this time of testing, I hear stories of people touting the “my-church-is-better-than-yours” line, trying to show the moral superiority of “their side” on either holding out the longest celebrating Mass publicly or stopping it the earliest as a precaution. As I have said many times previously, for the most part we do not live as a believing people. We do not act as a priestly nation. All to often we publicly deny the Lord (be it in word, deed, or omission). Are we surprised then that He should deny us?

By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you despise one another. Oh wait, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t it at all…

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If you will walk contrary to me

This post, and its sequel, are a way of me trying to make sense of all that is currently going on, especially in light of the Gospel.

We are living through strange times. The world seems gripped in a deathly panic, the living for the most part entombing themselves at home. Mortality seems to be on the minds of many, yet the Bride, whose mission it is to proclaim that Life is victorious, having trampled down death by death, remains silent. The faithful prepare for a most peculiar Pascha this year.

At home we have been making our way, for these past few months, through the Pentateuch. This past week we finished the book of Leviticus, and while I know that context is everything, many of the warnings given to the Israelites at the end of the book seem so apropos to the day and age we live in.
We are told nowadays (and by churchmen no less!) that God does not punish; He does not chastise; that Christianity has surpassed that outmoded view. And yet, reflecting on my own experience as a parent, if one truly loves one’s children, does he not find himself on certain occasions obliged to punish them? After all exhortations and entreaties have been tried, sometimes punishment is all that is left to keep the child from coming to harm and from harming others. If it is so for us and our children, is it not even more-so the case for our heavenly father and His wayward children? The Scriptures and the Fathers attest to it.

Why bother to repent when you’re eating such tasty husks with such great table companions?

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An unbelieving and perverse generation

This post will not be about the Holy Rule. However, neither will it be about all the madness that’s been going on in recent weeks; there are enough professional worriers writing about it as it is, who can do a far more competent job than I ever could. No; the unbelieving and perverse generation I am thinking about is not this current generation, in a horizontal sense, but every generation, in the vertical.

Thou art the man.

As some of you may (or may not) be aware, my family hails from a traditionally Catholic country. Due to what I call an Old Testament sized miracle in the first half of the 20th century many foreigners seem to naively assume that said country is a bastion of holiness and catholicity. After all, Our Lady appeared there and worked this prodigious sign, so it has to be a holy nation, right? Yet as an acquaintance of mine recently commented “There is more Sinai about Fatima than there is Assisi.” Fatima was more a warning than a reward for the people’s faith.

Listening to family stories over the years I found countless examples of relatives who abandoned the Faith in one way or another, or who even led others away from it. I recall a tale of a father who was a sacristan for most of his life. After his son’s first communion he told his son he no longer had to come to church; that he had “seen too much in the sacristy that was unbiblical”; what mattered was to pray to Jesus no matter where one was. The father still continued to serve at Mass (until eventually falling away completely), but his son fell away from the Faith. Here one sees the influence of parents’ practice of the Faith on their children. Another story involved a relative who grew up being taught to respect priests as God’s representatives. When she moved abroad as a teenager she witnessed predatory priests in her school. She could not make sense how this class of men who she had been taught to respect could sink to such levels, and so eventually fell away from the Faith. There are other stories of pious relatives who mixed folk religion with Catholicism and seemed to find no contradiction with it. Stories such as these abound, and I’m quite sure not only in my own family.

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“Be fruitful…”

Our recent trip has prompted me to write about our experience of going home with three young children. I ask my readers to bear with me as this will be quite long and might sound a bit like a rant.

While we were still living in Portugal a friend, who is living in the USA, said that what he noticed most when coming home was the absence of children. At the time my wife and I were unable to grasp fully what he meant. That changed when we moved to the UK. One of the first things I noticed was the amount of children everywhere. This was not simply because the UK has more population than Portugal, but because it is quite normal to still see families with 3 to 4 children (especially with a small age gap between them). To put things into perspective, in 2017 Portugal was the 6th country in the world with the lowest birth rates.
As some of you might know, I have three small children with an average age difference of two years. In Portugal couples with three children have become uncommon; couples with three small children, even more. While we were aware of this fact, we were not expecting most of the reactions we got on this last trip (which was the first time the whole family went home). On a few occasions some elderly people came up to us, startled that they were all our children, saying things to the effect of “such a large family, just like back in the day!”. Others would just stare at us for a long time. On a visit to a church, we crossed paths with a canon who was so amazed that we had “so many children” that he gave us his blessing then and there…

Why does a (formerly) Catholic country have one of the lowest birth rates in the world? Though Catholicism is still the majority religion there, why are Catholics having so few children? Now, before someone gets hot under the collar (no pun intended), I want to say that I do not believe that having many children is necessarily a sign of holiness. A couple with no children may be holier than one with five. That is not the point of this post. What I want to get at is, what does the low birth rate say about the way the Portuguese live the faith, especially in regards to openness to life?

During the seven years after I returned to the Church, never did I ever hear a single sermon in church on the importance of couples being open to life. Never did I hear a sermon against abortion. When I tell other Catholics here in the UK that I’m Portuguese they almost always say, without fail, “oh, you have Fatima! The Portuguese are such a Catholic people.” I often wonder if their idea of the Portuguese is not something taken out of the 1950’s movie “The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima”. Let us not forget that it was “Catholic” Portugal who voted in favour of liberalizing abortion in 2007. There was little noise (if any) from the hierarchy. I knew a few members of a certain religious order who actually voted in favour of the liberalization. When the law was finally passed, the Episcopal Conference came out with their typical hand wringing (as they did when same-sex unions were approved), but not much after that. There is something diabolical in the fact that in the maternity where my daughter was born there are images of Our Lady everywhere and yet abortions take place within those very walls; in fact, women with scheduled abortions have priority over other women…
At our marriage preparation there was some discussion about openness to life. One of the moderating couples had five children (it was the first time I’d ever seen such a large family in my city), yet they were the ones who implied that artificial birth control was a matter of personal conscience!

Why are the Portuguese having so few children? I think it is for quite a few reasons, being mostly materialistic. There was a generation or two that was brought up on the idea that having many children is a sign a poverty. I have heard this from people close to me, some who even came from large families themselves.
The reason most invoked, however, is financial economical – children are “expensive.” There is clothing to be bought, diapers, strollers, cots, food… then there’s putting them through university… I don’t say these are unfounded preoccupations. Life in Portugal is expensive, wages and salaries are low, and the way things are set up do not currently favour families. I know; I experienced this first-hand. I hear parents say they only want a child or two so they can give their children the best (which is a noble thing) but one has to inquire what is “the best” they’re talking about. It normally comes down to material things (clothes, schools, etc.). They think that lavishing their child with creature comforts will give them “the happiness they deserve”, all the while depriving the child of another sibling which would give them a richer happiness than that which money purchases.
Linked with this is what I term “readiness”. By “readiness” I mean that a certain number of prerequisites are need: one must first university, find a job, advance one’s career, save some money to buy a house, and then (if you should still be fertile at that age) you might, just might, be ready to have your first child.
Others simply do not want to give up their current life style. They want the latest mobile phone, their dream car, the X-bedroom house, the holidays abroad, and children will only get in the way of that. Children demand sacrifices, especially of “freedom”.
Another reason, which is, perhaps, not conscious, is the fact that sexual relations have been divorced from their proper marital context. Girls are put on the pill as soon as they come of age and culture at large tells them that procreation has nothing to do with sexual relations, being mostly an unfortunate by-product, and that one needn’t be married to engage in what is proper to the married state. Curiously the state does not authorize marriage at the age that children/teens are being told that it is OK to engage in these acts which are proper to marriage.
I would also add that seeing lots of children affects people psychologically, making them more prone to wanting more children themselves. In the case of a reduced birthrate society, “out of sight, out of mind”, as it were…
There are a few other reasons which I have heard, but I think the ones listed are the most prevalent.

Holy Mother Church and her fruitful union with the Divine Bridegroom

What I’ve described above is true of believers and non-believers. In fine, Catholics are living as heathens. They have embraced the “pomps of the Devil”; they have put a caveat on one of the requirements for the validity of their marriage; they have broken their baptismal vows. And to make matters worse, in many cases the institutional Church has failed them. Priests and bishops, those in charge of shepherding souls, have failed time and again to bring their flock back to the green pasture of sound doctrine. They have failed to call sin by its name and, in some cases, even given it their approval and blessing. And those of us laymen who know better have failed them as well with our own silence out of human respect.

While the Lord does not ask us to be reckless, especially in regards to our children, where is our trust in His Providence when we, by our actions, say “no, life is hard. I will not bring more than one or two children into this world. I can deal with that. That many I can manage. More is out of my control.” We take a rationalistic, calculated approach to life. I can control the outcome of my decisions (or at least minimize the negative impacts). I am in charge of my destiny, of my life… That is, until my soul is demanded of me. While more children can be an extra burden on family finances, they provide the couple with an opportunity to reassess their priorities. The couple can take stock of how they are living, discovering what things are actually not “needs”, but only “wants” and so can be lived without. Old clothing suddenly finds a new life as it is passed from sibling to sibling (our youngest has worn clothes that the eldest wore at their age).
Have we not failed as Christians is supporting our fellow brothers-in-Christ, especially in their hour of need? We have been quite fortunate to have found a parish were at last we feel as though we are among family. There are many families there, and they do tend to support one another as needed. Someone is always passing along children’s clothes they no longer need to another family that does need it. Experiences in parenting are shared. Help is offered. There is a sense of community.
With regards to “the best” being synonymous with material well-being, is that not spiritual short sightedness? While we do have certain material needs, much of what we give to our children are not “needs” at all. Are designer strollers/clothes/shoes/… “needs”? Or are they only buzzing flies that distract us, maggots that feed off our sense of pride? Through Baptism we have been raised with Christ, so why are we not seeking the things that are above, where Christ is seated? Why do we continue to think that what moth and rust consume are “the best”, while we neglect the one thing necessary?
Why have we sold Holy Matrimony short? Why do we, in our marriage preparations, mostly offer young couples what the world already offers? I recall hearing in my own marriage preparation other couples saying that they wished to “enjoy marriage” before having children (the couples who said this had already been living several years more uxorio!). What does it mean to “enjoy marriage” yet leave out children from that enjoyment, as if they were detrimental? Why do we not tell young couples that Holy Matrimony is not about happiness, but rather holiness? Why do we keep from them the fact that Matrimony is an icon of Christ and the Church, and that just as His love for His Bride is fruitful so too must our marriage be fruitful?

I am sure the problems I have described are applicable to any number of traditionally Catholic countries. However, in this case I write about the reality that I know. I put this out there merely as food for thought.

When God gained a heart

If you’ve been following this blog long enough, you’ll probably know by now that my Advents normally have a theme to them, and this year is no different. I never choose a particular theme; they are, in a sense, inspired either by the current circumstances of my life or else a particular thought suggests itself (rather insistently) some days before the beginning of the season.

This year I would say Advent has a Johannine flavour to it, for two reasons. The first is that about a week or (perhaps a bit more) before the start of Advent the Prologue of the Gospel of St. John began to present itself to my thoughts more and more regularly. The second is the Sacred Heart, which for whatever reason caught my attention during the first few days of Advent (while not directly Johannine, one can make the connection, I think, between Our Lord’s Sacred Heart and the Beloved Disciple who leaned upon His breast). Concerning the Sacred Heart, I admit I have never followed the devotion, but the image of It is one impressed upon my mind from a very early age. Recently reading up on the devotion, I was delightfully surprised to discover that it is Adoration-related.

The shortening of days with the lengthening of nights, almost to the point of it seeming that daylight will be snuffed out, seems to fit well with the expectation of that Light which shines, darkness being unable to comprehend it. While He has already come, and still remains present in this world through and in His Church, we are still expecting His final coming. We are watching and waiting, with “fear and trembling”, for that day when He will “come to judge the living and the dead and the age by fire”. Read more

Set a watch, O LORD, before my keyboard

Certain events over the last couple of weeks seem to have coalesced to bring about this post. Some time ago we received Father Prior’s “Benedictine Approach to the Use of the Internet & Social Media“; shortly thereafter our reading of the Introduction to the Devout Life brought us to the chapters on conversations and detractions; this past week saw some celebrations of the vetus ordo at the Fatima shrine, the main celebrant being a well known American cardinal. The flood of invective on Portuguese social media on the part of the laity and, even worse, priests has brought all the more to mind St. Benedict, St. Francis de Sale and Father Prior’s words on silence.

Perhaps it is the age we are living in, or perhaps it is just my impression, but it seems that we live in a time when most people seem to be very opinionated and they make a fact of letting everyone know their opinions whether others want to know them or not. Yet looking to the Holy Rule for guidance, what does the Holy Patriarch have to say about much speaking? In Chapter VI, after quoting the Scriptures St. Benedict puts the matter quite succinctly:

[I]f at times we ought to refrain from useful speech for the sake of silence, how much more ought we to abstain from evil words on account of the punishment due to sin.

While the Rule is essentially directed at those living the cenobitic life, general rules can be taken from it that can be applied to the lives of those of us living in the world, as D. Mark Kirby shows the aforementioned commentary. One of the verses of Sacred Scripture that I am most reminded of is

In the multitude of words there shall not want sin: but he that refraineth his lips is most wise. (Prov 10:19)

Looking back at St. Benedict’s injunction to refrain from talking even for “useful speech” through the lens of Proverbs 10:19, I can look back at everyday situations in my life where conversations (be they in person or online) that start out innocent enough many times slowly begin to degrade: a complaint is made here, a fault of another is revealed there, and the conversation suddenly snowballs, leading either one or both parties to murmuring, sinning against charity, etc. And this is not even when the conversation has started off maliciously! On those occasions where one happens to be caught in a situation of gossip, I have found that if one doesn’t extract oneself immediately then one is easily sucked into a whirlpool of complaint, detraction, etc., even if one was initially unwilling to join in at all.

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Guardian Angel

June 10th is the feast of the Guardian Angel of Portugal. For those familiar with the story of Fatima, the Guardian Angel of Portugal appeared to the young shepherds, as a way of preparing them for Our Lady’s visit. Providentially, this centenary the feast has fallen on a Saturday, a day liturgically dedicated to Our Lady.


Historically, the Guardian Angel of Portugal has always been believed to be St. Michael, who is also referred to in the Liturgy as the Angel of Peace (another title which the Angel of Portugal identified himself with). So, there is the pious belief that the young shepherds actually saw St. Michael! I leave you with the Collect of the votive Mass of the Guardian Angel of Portugal, as found in the Bragan missal:

Omnipotens sempiterne Deus, qui angelicam custodiam homini et hominum regnis, provinciis, et civitatibus contulisti:concede propitius; ut nostri regni ac civitatis praesul et custos, Angelus tuus sanctus ipsum totum regnum ac cives ab instantibus periculis corporis et animae et ab omnibus adversitatibus protegat et defendat. Per Dominum.

For the children

Since last year we have bought a couple of these magnets every time we visit Fatima. I think we probably enjoy them more than the kids! Here are the one’s we have so far:

Left to right: St. Benedict (a well known Portuguese image, S. Bento da Porta Aberta); St. Anthony of Lisbon; St. Jude; St. Christopher; St. Therese of the Holy Face

Left to right: Our Lady of Fatima; Senhor dos Milagres; Our Lady of Sameiro (which is actually of the Immaculate Conception); St. Michael the Archangel