Transcript of a talk to the Highland Catholic Men's Conference, 19th September 2020
Gentlemen, it is a pleasure to be with you in spirit at this conference for Highland Catholic Men. I always feel a great stirring of the soul when I hear the word Highland. This is not simply because I’m a great lover of whisky, though my preference is indeed for the scotch of that region, but because it conjures up all the romance of wild beauty, of a resilient people and of pride in one’s homeland.
To an Englishman who cannot trace his roots much beyond three generations, there is something deeply desirable about the heritage and kinship seen in the gathering of the clans, each with their defining names and tartans and each with their common traditions and mythologies. What a wonderful sense of belonging! What confidence must be inspired in every kinsman who feels himself a part of something so much bigger than his own individualism! What pride must be felt in every heart at the presentation of such a family to the world! What fire must grow in the soul of every boy when he hears the stories of his forefathers, those great examples of heroism and manly virtue!
There is something so compelling about knowing who we are, where we come from, who and what we belong to, and our role within this great, interwoven legacy of kinship.
When the rallying call to arms went out to the clans, all men able to fight were expected to gather, armed and ready for action. They knew what it was they were fighting for. As Chesterton says, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
I would like to use this time with you to talk with you about unity, primarily using the words of St Paul to the Ephesians, particularly chapter 4.
Since establishing Catholic Man UK – now with the inclusion of Ireland – it has been an enormous joy to see Catholic men in these isles gathering in physical groups and, latterly, online in great numbers. The recent period of lockdown saw our facebook group membership double in a few months and now, as we slowly make our way back into the physical world, I sense a great desire among our members to meet up in the flesh and to share tangible fellowship.
But do we really share, yet, a deep sense of brotherhood, rooted in our Catholic heritage?
I know I shouldn’t have been surprised at the level of antagonism online between Catholic men, but I was extremely disappointed when I first set up the facebook group and men began to arrive there. Liberals versus conservatives, anti-Pope Francis versus pro, Old Rite versus New – the aggression in the comments! and men’s desire to be seen to hold the moral high ground or to have the last word; it was soul-destroying. There was no awareness that the walls were being torn down from inside; each man was arriving to the conversation like a restless, self-centred pinball, crashing destructively from one flashing comment to another, and then disappearing down a hole as soon as they’d arrived, with no idea of the complete havoc they’d wreaked. Or maybe they did know, but didn’t care.
And that’s what we’re like! We arrive twitchy and agitated to the gathering with no sense of who we are in relation to anyone else, or what we should be doing with ourselves. And should we blame ourselves for this?
We have a great following from Ireland and Northern Ireland, and I’d been in touch via messenger with a Catholic man from Belfast who’s carrying out an excellent ministry with a series of podcasts called The Holy Joes. We agreed to meet on Zoom and record a podcast together, and the man himself, Joe, admitted to me later that he was somewhat nervous about speaking with me with regard to my English accent. An English accent had so many connotations for him growing up in Belfast that it gave him conflicting feelings prior to our call. And should he be blamed for this? Not at all. Each of us arrives at a point of relationship not only struggling under the weight of our own past but also under the weight of each other’s.
What must change for Catholic men, from this point of meeting onwards, is how we work to relieve each other of the burdens of the past.
It is in deep sorrow and forgiveness, and by holding in loving and painful tension the wounds of each man, that we begin to see we belong to a family, that we share a heritage and that we have a common legacy to protect.
So, before my conversation with Joe from Belfast could reach any fraternal depth, I needed to say to him how sorry I was for the actions of my English forefathers that had caused him and his kinsmen much pain. I needed to hear from him that he recognised and accepted my sorrow and that, at least between the two of us, we could hold in tension the fraught history of our nations and not let any animosity spread further than ourselves.
And though in this context you and I cannot reciprocate in the same way, I say the same to you – I am sorry for the actions of my fellow Englishmen that caused pain to the people of Scotland.
To my own, secular, countrymen, and perhaps even to Englishmen of faith, this is a foolish weakness, a loss of the moral high ground, but for me, we will never unify the Catholic men of these isles unless we first pause in sorrow and forgiveness, starting at the level even of our own families, our parishes and communities and then our nations. We will never build the walls of the Church in these isles all the while we are tearing them down from the inside. We will never trust that our fellow Catholic man is looking out for us, that he has our back, that he wants the best from us, all the while we hold on to our long-standing fears and divisions. We will always be twitchy and agitated in each other’s presence, trying to score points at the other’s expense, cautious of the other’s possible duplicity.
Why am I making this point so strongly?
To continue stretching the metaphor, we have arrived at a moment in time where it is necessary to make the call to arms. Now is the time to gather the clans. Indeed, “Now is the time” is the very call itself: St Paul says, “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favour, now is the day of salvation!”
Do the men of the United Kingdom hear this call? Do the men of England and Scotland hear this call? Do the men of the Highlands hear this call? We must all hear this call rippling across the nations. Beacons of hope must be lit from Ipswich to Inverness and over to Enniskillen and beyond, and the message must be: now is the favourable time!
This is no new call; this is the echo of a call made centuries ago by St Paul to the early Church in his letter to the Ephesians:
I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Let’s unpick this for the next few minutes. In this letter, St Paul makes an urgent plea for each of us to earnestly pursue our vocation.
As you know, if you have read or watched anything previously from me, I emphasise the core characteristics of every man's vocation in fatherhood, whether this is biological or spiritual. Every man finds his identity and his path to holiness - and brings others to understand their identity and holy path - in living out his vocation of fatherhood as an image of God the Father to everyone in his care or who he meets.
How do we live a life worthy of this calling? As men, in particular, we do so by a commitment to the virtues, a commitment we can make here and now. Now being the favourable time! The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines virtue as "a habitual and firm disposition to do the good” and St Paul gives us the nod to these virtues in his letter to the Ephesians. The Church defines the seven Christian virtues as combining the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage (or fortitude) with the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Perfection in the virtues as Catholic men is an intrinsic part of our call to arms, and I speak and write about this elsewhere. If you want a good book for men on the virtues, then look up Virtuous Leadership by Alexander Harvard.
As I said earlier, the biggest surprise for me moderating a Catholic social media group was the level of personal confrontation between members that accompanied their defence of various topics or views. When I highlighted this to individuals, I regularly received the response that pugnacious debate is manly and that anyone who can’t take it is soft.
St Paul calls the Ephesians – and us – to maturity in the virtues. Later in his letter we read that we should ‘put off the old man’. The new, mature man is the man of humility, gentleness and patience in regard to his relationship with others, bearing their faults and annoyances with love.
For emphasis, read Galatians: ‘For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another’.
Maintaining a level of restraint, this action I spoke about of holding all things in loving tension, can be a far more difficult and manly task than unleashing one’s frustration or contempt upon others.
It is dispiriting to see so much division around us; division between ourselves and our spouse, between our children, our parishioners, our fellow Catholic men, let alone among our politicians and leaders! We think peace ought to come easily, if only other people would just let go of their self-centred prejudices.
As men, however, we should be enthused and challenged by St Paul’s use of the word ‘maintain’. It has a workmanlike quality about it, a practical, hands-on approach. We need to tap into our masculine genius of craftsmanship, resilience, problem-solving and leadership to eagerly work out how we maintain the unity of the Spirit among ourselves. God wants us to be active participants in establishing His family on earth.
When we look around us, it doesn’t take much to see how people’s fears and anxieties cause them to isolate or to put themselves into conflict with others. Men have a particular gift of stepping into situations and providing reassurance and direction, but many times we lack the courage or conviction to see a situation and know it’s up to us to make a difference. That’s why it’s so admirable to hear of groups like the Highland Catholic Men and the work that you are all doing through it.
In Romans we read, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity”. St Paul was no stranger to the fortitude required to bring the early Christians into a bond of peace. Working to establish peace and unity is a tough job.
But let’s return to Ephesians. St Paul tells us that “there is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call.”
To understand more about this ‘one body’, we need to go back to the second chapter of Ephesians:
"For he … has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility … that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility".
He has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility. In a mysterious way, those of us who share in the Eucharist become one whole, unified body through the broken body of Christ.
Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book, The Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, says: “the Eucharist must again become visibly the sacrament of brotherhood in order to be able to achieve its full, community-creating power.”
He further explains: “this is a sacramental but also an ethical process . . . . The belief that we have all become a single new man in Jesus Christ will always call us to let the separating particularity of our own egos, the self-assertion of human selfhood melt into the community of the new man Jesus Christ.”
The ‘separating particularity of our own egos’ is perhaps the first battle we face in this call to arms, even before we enter the fray of division in search of unity.
It is a huge challenge to look inside ourselves and to identify the long-standing grudges, the grave wounds, and the lack of forgiveness for past offenses against us. It takes courage to search deeply for what is hurting so profoundly inside of ourselves – those hidden things that surface in our anger, our addictions, our cowardice and insecurities – and to face up to them and to root them out. We are so shackled by our deprived childhoods, insufficient parenting, fractured families and aimless growth into adulthood, that we often do not see the prison we are in. Getting to grips with these issues is what some psychologists call, facing the dragon, a phrase that draws on the many mythologies of the hero who sets out on a journey which leads him to fight monsters in dark places, to undergo a death, and to return miraculously to life with the strength to restore hope among the people.
This, of course, is a familiar story and one we’ve heard in fairy tales from childhood. Tolkein uses this image to great effect in The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf the Grey faces death at the hands of the Balrog but returns with great power as Gandalf the White. We see it too in Frodo’s epic journey into deepest Mordor where his constancy in the face of utter despair brings salvation to the whole of Middle Earth. Gollum, in contrast, is a great symbol of what men can become when they hold tight to bitterness and entitlement.
Indeed, The Lord of the Rings is one glorious story of unity among races achieved through personal denial, humility and great sacrifice for a cause beyond mere altruism. The peoples of Middle Earth were being cleverly divided and conquered, and were turning in hatred towards each other over ancient grievances. Dwarves hated elves, kingdoms of men mistrusted one another, towns were fortified and doors were closed. Yet the heralded coming of a King to lead all races to victory brought great hope, and people marvelled at the sight of the Dwarf Gimli riding in friendship with the Elf Legolas. This was a sign that times were truly changing.
Tolkein’s mythology points us in one direction – to the true King and the true unity of the family of God. St Paul continues his rallying call to the Ephesians, summoning them around the flag of “… one Lord, one faith, one baptism”.
This brief verse adds three more ‘ones’ to the ‘one body, one spirit and one hope’ in verse 4. These repeated references to unity highlight our intended harmony. We are meant to conduct ourselves as members of a single universal community of believers: the Church.
Thus, from the idea of the calling at the beginning of the chapter we pass naturally to Him who calls: the one Lord, and to the method of His calling to Himself: first, by the one faith and then by the one baptism - at which a profession of that one faith is made.
St Paul’s call to unity culminates in the acknowledgement of “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” – one God who stands at the beginning of all creation, transcendent in power and governance, but immanent in his paternal presence and agency.
People who worship many gods cannot hope to be united; their affections are directed to different objects: the god of wealth and pleasure, the god of race and nationalism, the god of individualism.
In Christ, however, we are ‘being built together into a dwelling place for God’. We are His temple and He abides in us. As the same God dwells in every heart, we ought to be one, echoing Christ’s beautiful prayer, ‘that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us.’
St Paul encourages us though his letter to the Ephesians that through the gift of Christ’s grace we each have a part to play in building God’s dwelling place. The Father, who stands in so blessed and gracious a relationship to the united whole, also sustains an equally gracious and blessed relationship to each individual in that whole. It is because each receives His individual gift that God works in all.
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Gentlemen, each of us has a part to play in these momentous times. As you return to you group of Highland men, consider how it is that you should be answering the call to your vocation as men, the call to virtue and the call to the unity of the body of Christ.
May God the Father bless you in that calling.