In the New Year, a little silence, please

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Last year, I spent a raucous New Year’s Eve in San Francisco, celebrating with some of my oldest and dearest friends against the backdrop of one of the most exciting cities in the world.

This year, I rang in the New Year alone. On my sofa. In my jammies. In prayer.

It was wonderful.

For some reason I felt very drawn to spending this holiday with the Lord, in silence. “Silence” was in fact the theme of my little New Year’s party. Not only was my house completely silent, but I spent a good part of the evening reading Cardinal Robert Sarah’s new book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise.

It’s a wonderful book. I am only perhaps 1/3 of the way through it, but I already highly recommend it. It stirred in this extrovert a longing for silence, and a hunch that God may be calling me to more of it in 2018.

The good Cardinal wastes no time in getting to the heart of the matter. He begins thus:

“There is one great question: how can man really be the image of God? He must enter into silence . . . [w]e encounter God only in the eternal silence in which he abides.”

As the meditations continue, Cardinal Sarah makes it clear that this silence is not absence, but “it is the manifestation of a presence, the most intense of all presences.” It is in quieting our hearts, in shutting out all of the noise that competes for our attention and our affections, that we encounter God, that we hear His voice.

And so, how do we do this? Where do we go to find His Presence?

Cardinal Sarah says that His Presence is found in particular in the Blessed Sacrament, “where the Presence of all presences awaits us, Jesus in the Eucharist.” He goes on to say that we find that Presence in “ . . . the houses of God that are our churches, if the priests and the faithful take care to respect their sacred character, so that they do not become museums, theaters, or concert halls, but remain places reserved for prayer and God alone.”

This hit close to home for me.

I crave silence in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. I think part of this is because I have a harder time than most achieving silence in my heart. I am easily distractible. Case in point: I spent a good part of a daily Mass last week wondering if Orange Pledge is safe for use on leather.

When it comes to recollection, I need all the help I can get.

In a silent church, in silent adoration before the Word Made Flesh, I can often feel His presence. St. John Paul II said that “Jesus waits for us in this sacrament of love.” That becomes real to me in those quiet moments, where the Tabernacle light reminds me that He is indeed present.

Finding that silent church, however, can be easier said than done.

We seem to have lost any sense of the church being a sacred place. Rather, the sanctuary has become just another place — for conversation, for texting, even for eating lunch. (Yes, eating lunch. I was praying recently in a small chapel when I heard the rustling of a fast food bag a few pews back. It smelled good. But not the place for it.)

So often, before or even long after Mass, we see mostly empty churches with a handful of people focusing on the tabernacle in silent prayer, while one or two conversations about politics or last week’s cold snap echo throughout the sanctuary, destroying any hope of recollection. Or people attempt to pray silently, while one or two people take it upon themselves to recite their own personal prayers aloud, again shattering the silence and making personal prayer impossible for anyone else in the space.

Of course, finding a place for recollection is easier at a parish with a dedicated adoration chapel — which I hope we all agree should always be places of silent prayer. But not all parishes are so blessed. And as Catholics, we believe that our sanctuaries — not just our adoration chapels — are sacred spaces. They house the the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. He is there, in his physical body. That is why there is a candle perpetually lit next to the Tabernacle — to remind us that this place is different. It is holy ground. A place where — outside of the Mass or organized public prayer events — anyone can come to encounter the God of the universe, in silence.

I’d like to challenge you to do what I’m doing in 2018. To seek God in silence — in the silence of your heart, and in the silence of the Tabernacle.

And to allow others a space to do the same.

COMING UP: The Pell case: Developments down under

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In three weeks, a panel of senior judges will hear Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of the unjust verdict rendered against him at his retrial in March, when he was convicted of “historical sexual abuse.” That conviction did not come close to meeting the criterion of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is fundamental to criminal law in any rightly-ordered society. The prosecution offered no corroborating evidence sustaining the complainant’s charge. The defense demolished the prosecution’s case, as witness after witness testified that the alleged abuse simply could not have happened under the circumstances charged — in a busy cathedral after Mass, in a secured space.

Yet the jury, which may have ignored instructions from the trial judge as to how evidence should be construed, returned a unanimous verdict of guilty. At the cardinal’s sentencing, the trial judge never once said that he agreed with the jury’s verdict; he did say, multiple times, that he was simply doing what the law required him to do. Cardinal Pell’s appeal will be just as devastating to the prosecution’s case as was his defense at both his first trial (which ended with a hung jury, believed to have favored acquittal) and the retrial. What friends of the cardinal, friends of Australia, and friends of justice must hope is that the appellate judges will get right what the retrial jury manifestly got wrong.

That will not be easy, for the appellate judges will have been subjected to the same public and media hysteria over Cardinal Pell that was indisputably a factor in his conviction on charges demonstrated to be, literally, incredible. Those appellate judges will also know, however, that the reputation of the Australian criminal justice system is at stake in this appeal. And it may be hoped that those judges will display the courage and grit in the face of incoming fire that the rest of the Anglosphere has associated with “Australia” since the Gallipoli campaign in World War I.

In jail for two months now, the cardinal has displayed a remarkable equanimity and good cheer that can only come from a clear conscience. The Melbourne Assessment Prison allows its distinguished prisoner few visitors, beyond his legal team; but those who have gone to the prison intending to cheer up a friend have, in correspondence with me, testified to having found themselves cheered and consoled by Cardinal Pell — a man whose spiritual life was deeply influenced by the examples of Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More during Henry VIII’s persecution of the Church in 16th-century England. The impact of over a half-century of reflection on those epic figures is now being displayed to Cardinal Pell’s visitors and jailers, during what he describes as his extended “retreat.”

Around the world, and in Australia itself, calmer spirits than those baying for George Pell’s blood (and behaving precisely like the deranged French bigots who cheered when the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus was condemned to a living death on Devil’s Island) have surfaced new oddities — to put it gently — surrounding the Pell Case.

How is it, for example, that the complainant’s description of the sexual assault he alleges Cardinal Pell committed bears a striking resemblance — to put it gently, again — to an incident of clerical sexual abuse described in Rolling Stone in 2011? How is it that edited transcripts of a post-conviction phone conversation between the cardinal and his cathedral master of ceremonies (who had testified to the sheer physical impossibility of the charges against Pell being true) got into the hands (and thence into the newspaper writing) of a reporter with a history of anti-Pell bias and polemic? What is the web of relationships among the virulently anti-Pell sectors of the Australian media, the police in the state of Victoria, and senior Australian political figures with longstanding grievances against the politically incorrect George Pell? What is the relationship between the local Get Pell gang and those with much to lose from his efforts to clean up the Vatican’s finances?

And what is the state of serious investigative journalism in Australia, when these matters are only investigated by small-circulation journals and independent researchers?

An “unsafe” verdict in Australia is one a jury could not rationally have reached. Friends of truth must hope that the appellate judges, tuning out the mob, will begin to restore safety and rationality to public life Down Under in June.

Featured image by CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images