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Posted: January 5, 2017 in Uncategorized
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After a break from blogging I can now be found at thecafeseries.wordpress.com

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Woman in London

Imagine you are getting ready for bed and your husband comes home drunk.  He starts beating you until blood covers the floor.  After the physical abuse he then rapes you.  Traumatised by what has happened you dutifully comply when the man you committed to share your life with announces that tonight you will sleep downstairs on the hard floor – no sleeping on the couch allowed – whilst he enjoys the comfort of the mattress.  As you prepare for a night of discomfort he brings the rubbish bin in from outside. He knows that where the food has lain rotting in the base of the bin there are maggots, so they are left to run on the floor.  Sweet dreams are impossible tonight.

The woman who went through that ordeal told me that she was raped nearly every night by her husband in the height of her 10 years of…

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st petersThis week Pope John Paul II will be getting a lot of press coverage because the Church will be canonising him as a Saint (a great role model in the faith). Here are 10 things you might not have known about his life and work…

1. He was passionate about the arts. Pope John Paul II loved amateur dramatics, both performing and writing plays. He studied drama in his native Poland before training for the priesthood. One of his better known plays is The Jeweller’s Shop, a work about marriage which has been performed all over the world. When he met Bono rather than asking to sing with him, the Pope asked to try on his glasses!

bono glasses

Trying on Bono’s glasses.

play

A man of the theatre.

2.  He was an avid sportsman. As a boy he enjoyed mountain-walking, football and fishing. Before becoming Pope, he entered an International Kayaking competition. Even after taking on the role of the head of the Catholic Church he still kept up some of his sporting interests, enjoying skiiing during his breaks.

kayak

Karol Wojtyla kayaking.

skiing pope

The Skiing Pope

3. He was a witness to forgiveness. In 1981 he was shot, resulting in him having to endure a 6 hour operation. He asked the Church to join him in prayer for the man who shot him, calling him his ‘brother’ and announcing that he has ‘sincerely forgiven’ him. Pope John Paul II later visited the man in prison.

pope shot

Visiting the man who shot him in prison.

4. Both spiritual and physical fitness were important to him. When he first became Pope he used to jog in the Vatican gardens, but was advised that this was not a good idea because tourists could see him. He continued to jog in spite of the advice. Some referred to him as the ‘keep fit’ Pope.

pope hike

The hiking Pope

5. He started the World Youth Day celebrations. These initiatives, which still continue today, have seen millions of young people encouraged in their faith as they gather in cities across the world to sing praise, to receive teaching and offer service in a community. Cliff Richard and former Christian band Delirious have performed at WYD gatherings in the past. In 2000 there were 2.1million at the gathering in Rome. He had a great sense of fun!

world youth day

World Youth Day, Rome, 2000.

pope fun

The playful Pope!

6. He was a  peacemaker. He wrote to both George Bush Sr and Sadaam Hussein in an attempt to avert the Gulf War. Prior to that he was called upon to help bring peace to the conflict between Argentina and Chile, who contacted the Holy See for mediation help. He was the first Pope to enter a Mosque.

pope peace

7. He was a friend to the new movements. In 1998 on the feast of Pentecost he spoke to representatives of various movements in the Church such as members of Focolare and Catholic charismatic renewal saying,

“The Church and the world need you. Come Holy Spirit and make ever more fruitful the charisms you have bestowed on us. Give new strength and missionary zeal to these sons and daughters of yours who have gathered here.”

“Today I would like to cry out to all of you gathered here in St Peter’s Square and to all Christians: Open yourselves docilely to the gifts of the Spirit! Accept gratefully and obediently the charisms which the Spirit never ceases to bestow on us! Do not forget that every charism is given for the common good, that is, for the benefit of the whole Church…”

holy spirit

8. He was ecumenical. He issued two joint statements of faith with Dr Robert Runcie, who was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 80’s.

robert runcie 1

The men agreed on statements of faith.

robert runcie 2

Christian Unity

9. A sexual revolutionary? Pope John Paul II gave 129 lectures at his Wednesday audiences on the area of sexuality which were later compiled into a work known as the Theology of the Body. This teaching in many ways was considered revolutionary as he openly discussed the difference between love and lust, sharing his thoughts on the gift of sexuality, nakedness and more! It has been taught in both Catholic and Protestant environments. He said, “The fact that theology also considers the body should not surprise anyone who is aware of the mystery and reality of the Incarnation”.

garden of eden

A painting depicting the garden of Eden.

10. He served to the end. Pope John Paul II served as head of the Catholic Church for 26 years in spite of battling with Parkinsons Disease towards the end of his life, which often saw him experience great pain.

pope pain

In agony when addressing the crowds in St Peter’s Square.

When will he be canonised?

This adventurer will be declared a Saint on Sunday 27th April 2014 at 10am Roman time (9am British Summer Time).

Whether you agree with the process of canonisation or not it is certainly an interesting/historic moment.

Where can I watch it?

1. Live in Rome at St Peter’s Square with millions of others. Large TV screens will be erected around the Vatican for people to watch it on but it will be extremely busy.

2. It will be streamed live in 3D at cinemas around the world, including in the UK. To find the nearest cinema to you go here: http://www.canonisationliveincinemas.com/

3. You can also watch it online via EWTN here: http://www.ewtn.com/live/ewtnplayer/jwplayer.asp?feed=domenglivepage

And a final photo of the young Pope shaving in the great outdoors!

pope shaving

(c) Maria Rodrigues

Taking a child to Church to get some prayer might sound like a nice idea, but in some countries it is not a wonderful and blessed experience.

This is not an easy topic to write about – I already have a lump in my throat as I think about the stories I am going to share – but I believe this issue is one that Churches around the world have a duty to a) wake up to and b) respond to.

Let’s begin in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country which has been described as the “rape capital of the world”*, where there is a widely held belief that misfortune such as sickness, job loss and death can be attributed to evil spirits working through a person who is present in your life. Many inhabitants also subscribe to the belief that anyone who is different, whether that be due to a disability, an above average intellectual ability, or even because of something as simple as bed-wetting, must have some malevolent spirits at work in them. When these accusations are made against children there are often tragic consequences. UNICEF estimates that there are around 30,000 street children in the captial of DRC, 70% of whom are living there as a direct consequence of being accused of being possessed or involved in ‘sorcery’, either having fled from home or been thrown out.

A mother from the Congo with 8 children was struggling to look after her large family so sent her 11 year old son to live with his Aunt and Uncle. The move would most probably have been an emotional upheaval for the boy, but the challenges he was to face intensified dramatically beyond simply settling into a new home. Everyone in the household got sick upon his arrival, so he was accused of being a witch who had brought a curse upon the family. They swiftly took the boy to see a Pentecostal Pastor** who claimed to have discernment skills. After paying a fee to the Church leader it was  announced, “yes, he is definitely a witch”, and the boy was taken into the care of the Church to be cleansed.

The young man and 3 other boys (also in the custody of the Church) were led to a wasteland where a bonfire was lit by the elders and pastor. The skin on the boy’s bottom, legs and groin were burned off as he was turned like a chicken on a spit. Along with a number of other children, he was held in captivity in the Church building for 5 months where he was barely given enough food to survive. God alone knows how his hurting, peeling skin was treated during that time.

This is not an isolated situation, but one of many reports coming out of the country. Susie Howe of The Bethany Children’s Trust, who is also part of the Stop Child Witchcraft Accusations Coalition, says that every case is different dependent upon the country in which the situation occurs. She explained to me that there are a variety of methods applied to ‘treat’ children to rid them of whatever has supposedly caused harm to those in their life: “they are starved, they may be beaten, they may be forced to take poisonous fluids, they may have acid put into their eyes… we’ve known cases where they’ve had red hot pokers put up their rectums… and the saddest thing is that it’s being done by so called pastors in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Taking a child to get some prayer in church might sound like a good idea, but in the case of accusations (a crucial word) of child witchcraft involvement the consequences are almost always negative. Money crosses the palms of those promising discernment or a solution, meaning that some bogus pastors have become self-appointed bishops or spiritual leaders. Susie clarified the situation with these false pastors: “they’ve never been to theological college… they are in it because they can make a breath-taking amount of money from this”.  The sad reality though is that some pastors who are trained in Biblical Studies, Church History and Theology, who are part of respected denominations, genuinely believe that the way in which they handle these cases are advancing the Kingdom of God. She explained, “Some of the pastors do believe that they are doing the right thing by God.” This is not just a case of poorly handled deliverance ministry (that would be a blog topic in itself), it is large numbers of children being wrongly labelled as ‘witches’ and then suffering brutal abuse as a result.

When the mother of the 11 year old boy tried to contact her son she was blocked from gaining access to him by the Church. It was then she realised things were not right so sought the support and assistance of another Pastor, one who had previously been involved in this type of activity himself but consequently realised that it was not Godly behaviour. He was able to help, with the good news being that the pastor who had abused the children by burning and starving them was arrested. However, the bad news is that he left prison after just 3 months because he was able to pay his way out.

While these situations are commonly found in African nations, South America and some Asian countries, it is important to acknowledge that there have been increasing incidents of children being labelled as witches even in the UK, which tragically have ended in death. The famous Victoria Climbie case hit our shores in 2000, highlighting that those brought up in cultures believing this teaching (that children can bring a curse to a family) travels as people leave their home country and set up life somewhere new. In 2010 another British case hit headlines: the story of Kristy Bamu, a young woman killed by her sister and partner, through physical abuse as well as the removal of food and water, all due to them thinking that she was a witch. The death of Kristy served as a wake up call to the Government, and so a plan was launched in 2012 to try to deal with the rise in cases of child witch accusations in this country. Children’s Minister Tim Loughton, speaking to the BBC said, “Abuse linked to faith or belief in spirits, witchcraft or possession is a horrific crime, condemned by people of all cultures, communities and faiths – but there has been a ‘wall of silence’ around its scale and extent… There can never be a blind eye turned to violence or emotional abuse or even the smallest risk that religious beliefs will lead to young people being harmed.”

In the Bible we see that evil does exist and that sometimes prayer is required to free people from demons, but it crucial to distinguish between a) those who are truly possessed so are in need some spiritual freedom and 2) minors who are accused of something which is a falsehood and are then abused in an attempt to free them. Jesus’ message was one of loving people to freedom not subjecting them to abuse for spiritual benefits. Susie has drawn her own conclusions from the various case studies she has assessed: “These are innocent children who have done absolutely nothing… They become scapegoats for misfortune.”

Action: What can you do? If this information breaks your heart or you want to find out more then please consider responding. There is a coalition of Christian individuals and organisations called Stop Child Witchcraft Accusations. For their vision, resources and more information visit: www.stop-cwa.org  They are doing some training next year for Pastors in the countries where this is commonplace, to help them discuss these issues and discern how best to respond.

May the Church lead the way in ministering love and freedom to people, providing hope for those in despair, healing for those who have been hurt, as well as bringing teaching and formation to those who are misguided. Lord, help us to be a voice for those who are too young or too weak to speak out against the abuse they are experiencing.

©Maria Rodrigues

* McCrummen, Stephanie (9 September 2007). “Prevalence of Rape in E. Congo Described as Worst in World”. Washington Post

**Not all Pentecostals agree to such methods of handling the situation, in fact the majority globally would condemn this abuse of children.

beggar lady

Recently I was away from home with work, but whilst the world’s media were focussed on the breaking news story taking place in that location, I was aware of a secondary story rumbling in the backdrop of the media mayhem. Many people were begging on the streets, not an uncommon sight in any city, but my suspicions were aroused that something wasn’t quite right when I noticed that those who had been asking for money during the day were nowhere to be found at night, when the Salvation Army came round handing out food to the homeless. Where had these beggars gone and where had they come from in the first place?

After 3 weeks of casual observation something rather disturbing unfolded. For every person I saw begging, invariably there was another person standing nearby watching the beggar, approaching at regular intervals to give a pep talk about how to get more money from passers by. During these brief dialogues the overseer would take the earnings achieved thus far, pocketing them, then promptly fall back to the other side of the road to continue monitoring the progress. One example of this was when I witnessed a young girl, probably in her twenties, sitting outside a Church. Across the road was a man who looked just a few years older than she was, who clearly acted as the boss. He was leaning against a lampost watching the girl’s every move. The relationship was like that of a master and their slave.

I stood for some time waiting for those inside the Church to come out so that I could interview them about the big event happening in the city, all the while watching the unpleasant begging scene unfold. The man supervising the girl became uncomfortable with me watching him – I knew this because we made eye contact and a few moments later he walked round the block before returning to lean on the wall near his ‘worker’. Perhaps he thought I was a journalist investigating his activity because I was standing with a recording device? Every time someone walked past the girl she changed from a more relaxed pose to putting on a strained, desperate face, shaking a cup of coins, glancing over her shoulder as she did so to check that her ‘supervisor’ was noticing the effort she was making. She looked young, afraid and controlled. I felt helpless as I watched, so used the time standing there to pray for her. Once the congregation emerged from the Church I approached the entrance to interview some of the worshippers, giving the girl a smile which she returned with a beautiful beam. She had noticed earlier that I had been watching the man – our exchange of smiles felt like shared solidarity that I knew she didn’t want to be there.

On another occassion during my trip I saw an old woman begging, and a man who was of an age that he could have been her son was the one in charge this time, almost bullying the elderly lady into looking more bedraggled. He was rough with her, paying her no respect when up close, and looking at her with disgust when watching from his look-out post. She was on the floor in the dust holding out a broken polystyrene cup, with a wooden walking stick laying on the ground beside her. As with the girl outside the Church it was a horrible thing to witness a woman being controlled in this way.

Over the weeks I began to notice that I never saw adult men begging unless they had some sort of deformity – whether those injuries were inflicted by those in their care to aid the begging or is something they were born with I will perhaps never know. One man had no hands, it looked like they had been chopped off – if I had a copy of Nick Vuijicic’s biography (the man born with no limbs) in the native language of the dust-covered gentleman then I would have given it to him, to show that physical limitations don’t mean you have to be on the streets. I do acknowledge though that if the man is living under the control of a carefully crafted begging operation his freedom to get out of street-working may be limited. Another man I saw begging had one foot which looked as if it had been broken and never put in a plaster cast to heal. The women sometimes had laminated photos of children, but my limited knowledge of the country’s language meant that I couldn’t ask where they got the laminator from or where their young were being kept whilst they begged. Some older children were also part of the act: one boy I saw was playing the accordian and being forced to sing to get funds, something I would label as child exploitation. Bernie Gravett, former Met Police Superintendant, told the BBC when speaking about children being made to beg in London: “This is modern day slavery. How does a four-year-old child consent to be exploited?”

We never know what someone has been through so cannot judge their situation – Mother Teresa said that if we judge we don’t have time to love – but I feel there is a need for us to open our eyes to those around us, to look out for the vulnerable who might be longing for support and help. Some of those I saw with broken cups asking for money may have been trafficked, either stolen, sold into slavery or forced into it. Perhaps they all slept in a base somewhere at night, coming out to work during the day, I don’t know, but what I do know is that I want Jesus’ heart of compassion so that rather than using my energy to speculate about what is really going on I use my energy to intercede and then act with wisdom.

I feel sorry for these beggars, they do not appear to have freedom to be who God created them to be. May we be God’s eyes, ears, hands and feet, to make a difference.

Prayer: Lord, give us your heart of compassion for those we encounter in our daily lives. Please give us wisdom about how to respond to shocking scenes we witness, directing us as to how to do our bit to help and support those who are in need. Come, Holy Spirit.

Action: There are many great anti-trafficking charities run by Christians in the UK (e.g. Stop the Traffick, A21 etc), but should you want to contact The UK Human Trafficking Centre with any concerns their phone number is: 0844 7782406

© Maria Rodrigues-Toth

When writing a blog aimed at Christians from all Church traditions, it is probably not advisable not to write an entire post on the Pope, but hopefully you will agree that I made the right decision in doing so!

pope laughing

Here are 20 things you might not have picked up on which either Pope Francis has done during his pontificate or got up to before he came to Rome:

1. Today he has broken years of tradition by choosing not to hold the Maundy Thursday foot-washing in one of the main Churches in Rome, such as St Peter’s Basilica. Instead he is heading to a young offenders institute in Rome to wash and kiss the feet of 12 of them.

2. When leaving Argentina to cast his vote on who the new Pope would be, a couple of his friends clubbed together to buy him some new shoes because the ones he was planning to wear were shabby and worn. (Those same new black shoes are apparently the ones we’ve seen him wearing as Pope!)

Pope shoes

3. Once declared the new Pope (something he was not expecting due to his age) it was customary for the Cardinals to greet him one by one. He decided not to sit on the throne prepared for the welcome, instead choosing to stand up and greet his ‘brothers’.

4. As the Pope and Cardinals were leaving for St Peter’s (where the new Pope was to appear on the balcony), a special Papal car had been prepared for Francis, however he opted to travel by bus with the other Cardinals.

5. Having left his life in Argentina there are few things he had to sort out. Rather than ask a PA or secretary to call up his newsagent back in Buenos Aires to cancel his daily paper delivery, he decided to do it himself! It took a while to convince the boy on the other end that it really was the Pope on the phone, calling from Rome, wanting to thank them for their service all these years. (It has been reported by the newsagents that the paper delivered to the Cardinal was always bound by a rubber band, and at the end of each month he would return all the elastic bands! A thrifty Cardinal.)

6. He liked to dance the tango when he was a young man.

7. When Pope Francis was a Cardinal he turned down the bishop’s palace, choosing more modest accomodation, which included cooking for himself.

8. In his first week in office Pope Francis had Mass with the Vatican gardeners and cleaning staff.

9. Once he became Pope he decided to return to the guesthouse he had been staying in prior to the voting process to collect his belongings himself… and also to settle the bill and thank the staff!

10. His financial advisor in Argentina was an evangelical Christian, with those who know the Pope saying that he reportedly chose him because he knew he could trust another Christian. Apparently they spent hours reading the Bible together.

11. He has washed the feet of Aids victims, sick children and new mothers.

foot-washing-1

12. He said that the papal apartment is too big for one man so has not moved in there.

13. The Pope is living in the Vatican guesthouse with other clergy who work for the Vatican, using a communal dining room and living in modest accomodation.

14. Evangelist Luis Palal (who runs Christian crusades the world over) counts Pope Francis as a personal friend, sharing how he is a man of prayer who knows the Gospel/kerygma.

luis palau

15. He had the Patriarch of Constantinople at his inauguration Mass, the first time since the split from Rome.

16. Pope Francis has chosen not to wear a gold cross usually worn by Popes, wearing a simpler one.

17. He likes to give the thumbs up to people when he sees them in the crowd!

thumbs

18. Pope Francis said his first Mass in the small church on the edge of the Vatican instead of in the main basilica, and then stood outside afterwards like a parish priest greeting all the parishonners one by one.

19. He is a friend of Pentecostals, evangelicals, Jews, Orthodox Christians and more! Reports suggest that he always asks other Christians to pray for him, often asking them to ‘lay hands’ on him.

20. He chose the name Francis after St Francis of Assisi because his Cardinal friend whispered to him ‘don’t forget the poor’ just before he had to choose a name.

st francis

I think he is a man who reminds all Christians that our faith is about love and service, and that through reaching out to others we will point them to Christ.

© Maria Rodrigues-Toth

Elsie felt suicidal.  Her son was sitting his A-levels at the time it happened, so she tried to be strong and support him whilst attempting to make sense of the overwhelming feelings she was experiencing.  Every day at the hospital where she worked Elsie says she was being undermined: colleagues would shout at her and leave her out when they went off for a break, with some speaking unkind words about her to others behind her back. Although well qualified in her field, and with much experience, she was treated like an idiot by those in charge. This persistent dragging down knocked at her inside resulting in her reaching the point where she no longer wanted to live. It was only upon acknowledging that the behaviour she was on the receiving end of was bullying that she was able to seek some support and help.

Bullying is not confined to childhood when youngsters name call, hide pencil cases or push someone over, it is also a sad reality for many adults.

Types of bullying:

1. Cyber Bullying

Clare befriended a guy on the internet through a Christian page and began to get to know more about him, even sending him a present at Christmas time. However their blossoming relationship turned sour when he suddenly blocked her from communicating with him online, making accusations of her being a stalker and love cheat – all of which were done publicly. His behaviour, she believes, was that of a bully. Other Christians turned against her as they read his thoughts about their online liaison, resulting in her self-esteem being knocked. She was harassed by people sending messages saying unpleasant things about her so she contacted those in authority on the site to report their behaviour. She says she has forgiven him but that the experience was extremely hurtful.

In the 21st century chat rooms, social networking sites, blogs and websites have all been used to bring about good but they are also common tools for abuse. The rise of smart phones and 24hr internet access means that a victim of bullying can be targetted any time of the day or night.  It might be a case of publicising information about someone, hounding them, ridiculing them or highlighting them to others. However, with news stories emerging of prosecutions being brought about for bullying tweets made or unpleasant facebook pages being set up, some adults have been caught being nasty to one another online and had to pay the price.

2. Spiritual bullying

Bullying can be conducted in the most unlikely of environments, including in the home or even at Church. Spiritual bullying is when someone in a position of spiritual authority manipulates a situation or person, crediting God or scripture as being the reason for a particular decision or behaviour.  This can result in someone feeling guity if they don’t hand over a certain amount of money, attend certain meetings, or hold a particular view, leading them to feel that somehow they are letting their faith community, God and themself down.

3. Physical bullying –

This type of bullying in its most extreme form would likely be labelled as ‘physical abuse’. Milder forms might be when a person repeatedly and deliberately knocks or pushes you when they walk past.

4. Emotional bullying –

Just a few weeks ago in the South West of England a bullying boss reportedly came before a tribunal after one of his employees accused him of telling her to stay single and not have babies, inducing fear over whether she would keep her job if she failed to comply with the command.

If someone is an emotional bully they might repeatedly instil fear into you, try to control you, or speak negatively about you to your friends, family and colleagues.

When adults treat each other badly we often consider the word ‘bullying’ to be inappropriate.  Perhaps the reason for that is because we associate the word ‘bully’ with our schooldays.  Maybe that needs to change.

Resources:

1. National Bullying Helpline – 0845 22 55 787

2. ‘Insight into Child and Adult Bullying’, by Helena Wilkinson (Due out Jan 2013 – I have not seen a copy but it covers coping techniques and bully traits.)

© Maria Rodrigues-Toth

p.s. The words with the huge speech marks next to them are my own, I just used the speech marks to highlight the points.

Age 7

You have probably heard of women who breastfeed their babies into their toddler years (something which is either frowned upon or celebrated depending on the circles in which you mix), but opinion remains divided on whether the practice is perverse or beautiful when it comes to older children.  Breastfeeding in public has always been a point of contention but more recently the debate has changed its focus to become a discussion about the age at which it is healthy to stop giving a child ‘Mummy milk’.

Recently I met a lactation consultant who is a former midwife.  She has a passion for singing, knitting and breastfeeding, which has led her into some rather quirky projects.  I was given a private rendition of a few of the songs she has written on the topic of breastfeeding, which were essentially poems put to well known tunes.  One of the pieces she sang for me contained the line “get me to the breast on time” which went to the tune of I’m Getting Married in the Morning.  As well as her musical skills, her knitting ability has been put to use as a tool for promoting the ‘breast is best’ slogan… with her often being found armed with knitted breasts and knitted baby poo, which serve as visual aids when helping mothers learn how to get their baby to latch on or to understand how to assess the contents of a nappy!

Singing and knitting aside, perhaps the most significant thing which happened during our short time together was a statement she made suggesting that we were created by God to be breastfed far longer than is traditionally done in the 21st century.  Health professionals often recommend that a mother stops offering the breast to a child once they reach their 1st or 2nd birthday but this consultant says, “Children need milk until they are about 7.  After the milk teeth have gone… that may be a more normal time to think about giving up the breastfeeding”.  Yes, 7 years old – the age at which young people in the UK take SATs exams, are part of sporting teams, or attend Brownies and Cub Scouts.  (See photo above of me at that age.)

She suggested that mothers be open to breastfeeding as long as possible because “women have been given breasts to produce milk… [children] need milk and what better millk than a mother’s own.”  The argument drew on insight from the animal kingdom as she explained how polar bear babies are given milk for the first few years concluding that, “as we have a longer life cycle it seems natural that our babies could be older than 2 & 1/2 and still need milk“.  Looking back throug history was also a way of building her case as she shared how in years gone by there were no dairy animals to provide milk so getting calcium from a mother’s milk strengthened a child and created a special bond.  That said, the singing midwife did acknowledged that it is necessary to work with the child and feed them for as long as they want, realising that some school aged children may not want to be fed in this way*.

What is perhaps surprising is that this passionate lady is not a mother herself: “I haven’t had a baby and I haven’t breastfed”.  The main objections such an idea has received – besides the potential nips from a 7 year old’s teeth on the mother’s breasts – are that it is unhealthy and socially unacceptable, with some saying that it potentially becomes sexually unhelpful for boys.  So what do you think?  Have we lost sight of what God intended when he created woman with the ability to lactate?

For advice and help:

National Breastfeeding Helpline: 0300 100 0210

* Please note that she was not suggesting breast milk as the only source of food, but as a supplement, like a vitamin, to a healthy diet.

© Maria Rodrigues-Toth

Is the Catholic Church in danger of losing some of its most active, committed young members or are these young people paving the way for a new season of ecumenism?*

This week I learned of 14 young Catholics who individually plan to attend a service, conference or prayer meeting outside of their own denomination at the weekend.  This is not a one off occurence for a Churches Together initiative but something they do regularly.  Had I been specifically searching for Catholics who practise this sort of ecumenical worship in Britain the numbers would have been considerably higher.

In some cases it involves double servicing on a Sunday, perhaps attending Mass in the morning and a Protestant Church in the evening, for others it means participation in weekday prayer gatherings or teaching nights at an alternative Christian Church to their own. Ecumenism is encouraged by the Catholic Church, but in Britain are the Protestants the ones discipling the younger generations for them?

Amongst those in their teens, twenties and thirties there is an increasing eloquence when it comes to explaining Catholic Church teaching.  With the recent publication of the YouCat (Youth Catechism), the availability of Vatican documents online, and initiatives such as Catholic Voiceswho specifically train people in not only understanding but also articulating their faith to others, there has arisen a movement of parishonners who are confidently doing their own faith study. Some are proficient in Koine Greek and/or Hebrew, while others turn up at Church having prayed through the coming Sunday’s readings in advance.  Although they are pursuing personal study many are turning to the Protestant Church to get their needs met for deeper formation outside of a short 15 minute sermon in an hour long Mass.  They are getting access to internationally acclaimed preachers, discovering a sense of Community during the weekly Protestant homegroup/cell meetings and are experiencing new models of communal prayer alongside their own Sunday service with their parish priest.

The ecumenical insight of this ‘group’ is noteable: whilst keenly aware of their own roots, they are also knowledgeable about what is available to them in the Protestant world. Many could tell you about the latest Protestant prayer movements in the States (e.g. IHOP Prayer Movement), or who the leading Pentecostal evangelists are in Africa (Reinhard Bonnke) or Australia (Christine Caine) – they are reading their books, watching their preachings, getting spiritual food from it, all whilst being able to identify which elements to deliberate over or discard due to theological conflicts with their own beliefs.

These individuals who look to other Church traditions for formation and spiritual experiences to support them are spread geographically around the country, and don’t necessary know one another because there is no umbrella movement which unites them.  They might meet others in the same situation as them (being Catholic but benefitting from attendance at other Churches) at one of the many Catholic gatherings which take place throughout the year such as the Celebrate conferences, 40 Days for Life, Youth 2000 or in their University Chaplaincy, but beyond that the journey is a personal one. They are often readers, Eucharistic Ministers, youth workers, or those providing music ministry and catechisis for a parish. But is their turning to other Churches a sign that the Catholic Church is failing to meet the needs of the very people who keep it going at a grass roots level, or an indicator that there is a new move afoot of Church unity which will be characterised by greater tolerance, respect and understanding?

There was recently a Leadership Conference at the Royal Albert Hall which saw Christian leaders from all walks of life gather (around 4000 of them).  Although it was run by the Anglican HTB Church, they had a Catholic stream to the event.   Speakers such as Christopher West, of Theology of the Body fame, were flown in, as well as Catholic worship leader Matt Maher, along with ordained hierachy from France. This Protestant Church in London even has a global movement called Catholic Alpha which seeks to serve the needs of Catholic parishes worldwide in discipling their congregations in the basics of the faith.

They are not the only Protestants who are providing prayer and formation for the Catholic Church. In America the ‘One Thing’ conference taking place at the end of this year (which it is estimated will draw an attendance of around 25,000 young people) has a Catholic track supported by the Catholic University in Steubenville.  It’s founder Mike Bickle is sensitive to the needs of Catholics having grown up in the tradition himself.  Although now departed from the Church of Rome, he is said to encourage Christians from all backgrounds to read the lives of Catholic Saints such as St John of the Cross to learn from their prayer lives. So are Protestants doing a better job of providing for the needs of young Catholics than the Church herself?

Soul Survivor is an annual summer camp for young people in Britain, once again being one at which tens of thousands are in attendance. Testimonies pour in of lives changed and faith renewed as a result of the experiences of prayer, preaching and praise.  The man at the helm (Mike Pilavachi) had some of his early years formation in a charismatic Catholic prayer group in London.  Far from being anti-Catholic and trying to draw young people away from their Catholic roots, provision is being made at the camp to enable them to fully participate in the summer events programme.  For a number of years now Mass has been provided for those who require it as an alternative to the Protestant Communion service.

There are many lay movements in the Catholic Church which provide formation and prayer experiences, some of which have been alluded to in this piece, but perhaps the Catholic Church owes some gratitude to the Protestants who are giving some of their key workers the input they require to inspire and encourage them to keep going in their roles as evangelists and disciplers in the Church?

© Maria Rodrigues-Toth

*Please note that this post is not based on statistical research but rather on obvservations I have made on what I see as a growing trend among Catholic young people. .

My husband and I have been married for just over a year but some Christians believe that the sort of ‘solo dating’ we took part in prior to our wedding day is to be discouraged and frowned upon.  But what is it that we were doing wrong?

Before walking down the aisle we enjoyed one another’s company either on our own or with others.  We would sit in coffee shops chatting about our hopes for the future, take walks along the river, pray together or join our friends at Christian conferences.  From the start we agreed to a few guidelines for our pre-marital state, drawing on the wisdom of those we’d heard speak about this season of relationship – overall our aim was to keep God at the centre during this period of time.  I was surprised to learn that in some circles our behaviour would be seen as inappropriate because only group dates or accompanied ones are viewed as acceptable prior to marriage.

Far from being a fringe opinion held by a few strict parents to prevent their youngsters getting pregnant out of wedlock, it seems that the idea of group dating is held to be best practise in a number of Church communities, particularly in America.  If there is need for a couple to meet away from the crowd (perhaps to discuss marriage?) then it is expected that either a parent or responsible Church adult be in tow.

There is alot of negativity surrounding the concept of dating among American Christians with slogans such as ‘dating may cause heartbreak’ being used, but I have realised that their culture of ‘boy meet girl’ is vastly different from the British one.  Our approach to dating is probably more akin to what those in the States might refer to as ‘courtship’, namely that if a couple are dating they choose to be exclusive (not seeing multiple people at once), attempting to discern whether they are to be marriage partners in future or not.

Over the years I have heard stories of those who chose to save their first kiss for their wedding day, and of others who got engaged just a few weeks after meeting one another.  Some Christians say that it is a beautiful sign of commitment, love and purity to save your first kiss while others laugh it off as idiotic.  Some would call it irresponsible to get engaged too quickly while others would say that dating for too long can be unhealthy, yet both sides would profess to be Christian.  These tales serve as a reminder that every Christian couple is different.  Is it therefore possible to have one set of baseline ‘rules’ for everyone or could Churches simply offer guidelines to safeguard their congregations and then allow them to adapt the suggestions according to their circumstances?

I opened up the question of dating guidelines to the female listeners of the radio show I host and have summarised/compacted/edited their thoughts into ten points below.  Are these suggestions wacky or wise?

A Christian Woman’s Guide to Dating:

1. Stick to enjoying one another’s company in places where no overnight stay is required. Going on holiday just the two of you could place you in a compromising situation and also might not serve as the best witness if you are hanging out in one another’s rooms.  Single room supplements are expensive anyway!  If you really want to holiday together then find a group to go with, ideally made up of some single people so that it doesn’t get really coupley.

2. If you are alone together in a home or even if there are others around, then to protect yourselves from being too close physically keep the door open at all time regardless of which room you are in – it doesn’t matter whether you are in the kitchen or the bedroom, the same principle applies. (Some also suggested that you never lie down together anywhere.)

3. If kissing is full on then it can be unhelpful, so show respect to your potential future spouse by limiting physical expressions of love.  You will have all the time in the world to express yourself physically after marriage so ditch the ‘try before you buy’ mentality.

4. Hold off any physical expression of love for the first few months of dating.  Often a relationship gets clouded by and guided by the physical so focus on learning about each other without that distraction so as to build a healthy foundation.  If you break up after a couple of months there will be less heartache if you have not been physically connected.

5. Pray together.  If you can’t pray together when dating and offer your relationship to God then there’s not much hope you’ll do it when married.  Let God be the glue.

6. Be confident that God has the perfect husband (or wife) for you.  That way you won’t get tempted to date someone for the sake of it out of fear that no one else will come along.  This could mean that you avoid marrying someone who is second best and not quite right for you.  Be patient – easier said than done though!

7. Pray for your future spouse even while single and know that if you haven’t been asked out by someone yet it’s not because there is something wrong with you, God is just preserving you for the right person.

8. It is ok to dress to impress, particularly if you are a woman, but please cover up.  Eventually you’ll get wrinkles and sag, so if the relationship is founded largely on physical attraction what will hold you together when you are old? You want a man to date you and marry you for who you are inside not because you reveal too much cleavage, shoulder and leg, inticing him physically.

9. Introduce one another to your friends.  Living in an isolated bubble can go horribly wrong.  You want your future spouse to get on with your friends, but also if the relationship doesn’t work out you need your friends to support you, so if you neglect them and spend all the time with your dating partner you could come unstuck.

10. If you are pretty messed up at the moment it’s probably not the best time to get into a relationship.  Let God sort you out a bit rather than thinking a relationship will fix you.  To be a gift to another person requires getting as whole as you can be so you can be a blessing rather than a burden.  Only God can meet your needs, a man cannot!

So there you have it, all the suggestions rolled into ten top tips.  What do you make of the listeners’ ideas?

© Maria Rodrigues-Toth