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Book Review by Seminarian Gary Carter

Any attempt to try to cover approximately a thousand years of history in one volume must be a challenge. In the case of Martyn Rady’s The Habsburgs, the challenge has been excellently met. Rady begins with the more humble beginnings of the Habsburgs as one noble family amongst many in the Holy Roman Empire and charts their monumental rise, via a number of interesting and amusing side streets, to the end of the dynasty in the aftermath of the First World War.

Writing significant biographies and analysis on every ruler from the Habsburg dynasty could lead to the work becoming unruly and Rady wisely focuses on the key features of each ruler’s life and impact on history. Whilst the chapters may appear brief, they are certainly full of detail and written in a vivid language that draws the reader further and further into the dynastic intrigue. Rady takes deliberate efforts to avoid the caricatures that can often be trotted out for various Habsburgs (the treatment of Franz Josef is fair and the over-sentimental tropes for the Empress Elisabeth are avoided) but the character assessments should be considered fair and accurate.

One of the interesting touches of the book is the exploration of the cultural and scientific developments that occurred in the Habsburg domains during the period and how the dynasty responded, positively and negatively, to these developments. The Habsburgs is not a book with a sole focus on the political but takes a welcome holistic approach. Particular highlights include Rady’s descriptions of the cultural mission of the Habsburgs whether in the great library of the Hofburg or in the various museums that were established in the Empire with Habsburg assistance.

For those wanting in depth analysis on the military campaigns of the dynasty, this is not for you, but this does not take anything away from the work. The victories and defeats are wonderfully put into the context of the dynastic story, and Rady avoids an assessment of the dynasty that is purely military. Whilst it is possible to have disagreements with some of his assessments of the Habsburgs (and Catholicism as a whole) in the Reformation period, he is rather scholarly regarding Catholicism and the faith of the Habsburgs rather than being either overtly positive or negative. As a result of this fair treatment of the Faith, the assessments of the period as a whole are enriched rather than tarnished with a sectarianism or intellectual snobbery regarding the Catholic religion.

My one criticism of the book is that it does feel rather anti-climatic during the discussion of the dynasty, but it is also fair to say that the dissolution of the Austrian Empire was itself rather anti-climatic (events in Russia and Germany certainly overshadowed those in the Empire). Whilst it must be acknowledged that the author of this review greatly enjoys reading about the Habsburg dynasty, and could be considered biased in favour of the book in that regard, Rady is a wonderful resource to introduce the Habsburg world to the uninitiated and to enlighten the reader about the historical background to the places and the problems of modern Central Europe.

Article by Scott Coleman

“There but for the grace of God go I…”

I have read and enjoyed plenty of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, Brideshead Revisited most notably among them. There one finds a certain vision of Catholicism, of priesthood, and the world; that vision is not without its challenges, and the Catholicism which attracts Ryder in Brideshead is not an easy or a straightforward thing. Still, there is something irresistible about the faith as presented; suffering and hardship there may be, but there is a certain dignity in the action of grace in the lives of human beings.

I recently read, for the first time, a novel by one of Waugh’s near contemporaries, Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory, and how great a contrast there is. My first reaction to Greene’s whisky-priest was “there but for the grace of God go I”, but this seems an inadequately trite response to the drama of faith and humanity in this novel. Whenever I thought I had grasped the message, or was confident that I had understood the character of the priest, there was something more to learn, something more to experience - and generally something which I struggled to pigeonhole as either positive or negative.

The opening scene introduces us to the nameless main character, who, unbeknown to us, is attempting to escape anti-clerical persecution in Mexico. He misses his chance (for the sake of a drink and some hospitality from an unwitting English dentist) and almost shuffles off, back into the interior of the country, back into his ministry. The lack of drama, the resignation of this long-suffering man was, to me, almost unbearably tense. Right from the start, and throughout the story, I found myself longing for him simply to pick himself up and run for it.

But simple answers are emphatically not on the table for Graham Greene. For every community and individual whom the whisky-priest meets there is a mixed blessing, the blessing of God’s presence vouchsafed by a fragile and wounded human being. He retains throughout a deep faith in the reality of what he is doing for people when he celebrates the sacraments. He continues to minister to people at enormous personal cost, even if it is a cost that he bears almost unwillingly; he certainly has no plan to minister to them other than that which providence presents to himself.

There is deep insight into human vulnerability, woundedness, and sin. The priest’s knowledge of his unworthiness is profoundly affecting; however much I wish to make excuses for him, he will not let me; he retains the deepest sense of his sin in the sight of God. The passages in which he contemplates his own damnation are hard to read, and again the temptation I felt was constantly to explain away his misdemeanours, to try to work out a way of explaining his situation. But he simply depends on God. He knows he can do nothing without Him and consequently does nothing without Him. He is all too aware of the inadequacy of his own contrition and love for God; he longs for the assurance of sacramental absolution that is not forthcoming (there being no other priests available).

The hardest point on this journey is when, having escaped into a neighbouring state without such persecution, he allows himself to be led back. He knows he is going towards a trap, but goes willingly to attempt to reconcile and hear the confession of a murderer; it ends with his being shot.

What am I to think in response to this? Thanks be to God, I do not live in such a state of persecution, and have the comfort of knowing that the sacraments and the support of friends and family are never far away. Would I have the courage to admit my faults, to carry on, to resign myself to any fate, simply because providence so guided me? These are questions, inevitably, that one cannot answer in advance. And perhaps rightly so: each of us can only respond to the present situation, to the challenges and opportunities that God in fact gives.

But I am not sure that that is an entirely adequate response. The whisky-priest certainly has his failings, and does not always act for quite the right motives, but he has love. He has a deep love for the real human beings around him. He does not love simply because he is commanded to do so; he loves because he sees something of value in each person; he sees each person as at least as lovable as himself. His love is not blind and he does not pretend that people are better than they are, but his self-knowledge and self-awareness opens himself up to the other.

This article might read like rather a stream-of-consciousness (and it is), but that is perhaps because this novel defies easy answers and neat categorisation, at least to my mind. Is the priest a martyr, hero, and saint, or is he a scoundrel who scrapes through life by luck, ultimately condemned by his own fecklessness? The answer is undoubtedly a little of both - but these are hard ideas to reconcile. It will continue to be a source of provocation in my reflections on priesthood and vocation.

Bishop Richard Moth’s Homily for St John’s Day Mass at Wonersh

Tuesday 9 February 2021

Dear Brothers,

There might be a temptation on this St. John’s Day to fall into anecdote and reminiscence. Opportunities for that abound at lunch and the homily at Mass is meant for better purposes. Let us, then, be open to the Word that we have heard and to the One who gives Himself to us on his altar, for here is Calvary and here, also, is the Tomb, the place of Resurrection.

The dignity of the baptised person is a wonderful fact – and the life of every Christian is bound up in the love that exists in the Trinity. It is a life of pilgrimage on which we are called to deepen our relationship with Father, Son and Spirit, that the love we experience in God will flow out to others, calling them into that same relationship that finds its expression most fully in the life of the Church.

For some of us, the Lord has a particular call – to share in His eternal Priesthood and for 130 years this Seminary has been the place of formation in the Christian Life that has, for many who have come through its doors, led to the gift of Priesthood. A Seminary is a place of beginnings, of nourishment, of discovery. It is a place where the seed of priestly vocation is planted and given space to put down roots in the heart of the one who responds to the call. It is a place of aspiration and Hope. The path that we take here is one of discernment, depth of prayer, growth in knowledge and in the understanding of ourselves and others, that we might be ready for all the Lord calls us to do.

Here at St. John’s, this journey is marked by the foundation of this Seminary in the Sulpician Tradition, as envisaged by the first Rector, Francis Bourne and Bishop John Butt, our founder. Formation takes place in a context of a very close relationship between staff and students. Staff and students take the journey of formation together. I wound venture to suggest that this Sulpician spirit has been found in new ways in more recent times. It is certainly more evidence than would have been the case when I and Fr. Rector were here as students – and this is a blessing for the community and for the Dioceses that the seminary serves.

For those called to Priesthood, it means a life “united with the Lord Jesus and more closely conformed to Him, denying oneself, prompted by love of Him.” The priest is a “steward of the mysteries of God in the Holy Eucharist and the other liturgical rites, a life devoted to sacred office of teaching – not for any gain, but moved only be zeal for souls.” – as the renewal of promises at the Mass of Christ expresses it.

St. John, in today’s Gospel, explains who he has written: to ensure that the truth of the Resurrection is known. John’s faith is simply expressed: “He saw and he believed.” There is no questioning in his response. He holds this truth in his heart and he proclaims it in simple and straightforward terms. John proclaims the Word made Flesh, he proclaims the Resurrection of Christ. He knows that the world will not always believe – we see this in the Prologue to his Gospel – but he must proclaim the message, that others may know Christ. John was a young man, with the straightforward, no-nonsense zeal that has no place for cynicism – we do well to learn from John in this respect.

He has, as he writes in his letter, only one Subject. Aside from Christ, there is nothing worth talking about! So it must be for us. Today’s world may be secular and consumerist in so many ways – the world of John’s day wasn’t so different – but there is so much that is good and open to the gift of faith. With the prophet in today’s first reading, we are called to be bearers of Good News – Good News that is welcomed. Because the human person is made for God, even in those who do not recognise it, there is an unrealised joy in hearing the message.

This Seminary community exists in this world – it is not isolated from it – and in this place the Lord invites us to answer fundamental questions: Am I a John for the age in which I live? Is the Lord my one Subject, the one relationship that matters above all else? Is the Lord calling me to preach His Incarnation and Resurrection, to be His priest – and not a priest of my own invention or image – that the world may encounter Him in the miracle of the Eucharist?

If the answers to these questions is ‘Yes’, what better foundation can there be for a life of priestly service – and what gifts will come to the Church and to a world that needs to hear the message that John proclaimed: “I have written these things that, reading them, you too may believe as well.”

May I end of a personal note. Thank you for inviting me to celebrate St. John’s Day with you. It is difficult to express the privilege that this is for me. In this celebration, we offer the greatest thanks possible in this life – the Eucharist – for all who have been formed for priesthood in this house. We give thanks, too, for those for whom the experience of this house has led them to different paths in the Lord’s service. We remember past members of this house who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith after lives of devoted service.

As this day of celebration continues, we continue to pray for our present community – in thanksgiving for all that that you bring to this house, for the confidence with which you are facing a time of change and for the giftedness that you will take to new places in the months ahead.

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