In Praise of Virgin Martyrs

“The Catholic Church thinks it’s better to be a dead virgin than a rape survivor.”

That’s how I saw the Church’s stance on Christian women martyred ‘in defense of their chastity’ summed up by a critic in newsprint a few years ago, and it came back to mind with the beatification of Anna Kolesárová earlier this month.

In 1944, a Soviet soldier tried to rape and then murdered the devout 16-year-old Slovak. Anna was a daily Massgoer who had taken over domestic chores following the death of her mother. When the soldier came looking for food and took hold of her to satisfy another appetite, she broke away from him and cried her farewell to her father before she was fatally shot. The memory of Anna’s death survived throughout the period of communist rule in Slovakia, resulting in growing public interest in the post-communist nation, culminating in this month’s beatification.

But this kind of holy role model is controversial. A Catholic critic in Commonweal asked, ‘Are we still doing this?’ Even a more sympathetic commentator on Alateia conceded the weakness of trying to tell school children that Maria Goretti was a saint because ‘she refused to let herself be raped’. A hostile Slovakian, Ria Gehrerová, questioned the implication that being murdered is preferable to being raped.

Gehrerová noted that on Anna’s grave, it is written “better death than sin”, which has also been used by the church when promoting Kolesárová’s story. But “would Kolesárová have sinned if the soldier had raped her? A spokesperson of the Slovak church said no.”

Let’s first acknowledge the blindingly obvious. Anna was sexually assaulted and killed by a violent man through no fault of her own. If the soldier had succeeded, she would not have committed any sin – any wilful, personal, choice – against purity. The only choice she was faced with, in the heat of the moment, was whether to consent, acquiesce, or resist – and her choice to resist was a reflection of who she was as a person.

‘Consent’ given under duress is never true consent, whether to an act of sexual abuse or to some other act of manipulation such as a hostage situation. Nevertheless, there are moral questions around co-operation, and the Church holds (based on the writings of St Paul) that we cannot do evil that good may come of it. No sin (wilful co-operation with evil) committed under duress can be mortal; there is likely hardly any culpability at all. But there is still a moral choice to be made between co-operating and acquiescing – that is, saying ‘no’ but not actively resisting – or indeed putting up a heroic show of resistance. And I write these words conscious that it is easy to pontificate about an abhorrent situation in which I have never found myself.

We could be distracted, at this point, by a long exploration of the goodness of virginity per se. The Book of Revelation (14:4) gives us a glimpse of a special category of saint, who died as virgins for the sake of the Lord – ‘men who have not defiled themselves with women’. There is a difficult history, from St Augustine of Hippo until righted by St John Paul II, of Christian scholars suggesting that even within marriage, the sexual act is intrinsically impure. The Vatican recently ruffled feathers by suggesting (88) that women who were not virgins could be admitted to the Order of Consecrated Virgins. This reveals the tension between the sign given by a woman pledging perfect chastity from now on against the spiritual value of always having been a virgin (the subject of heated mediaeval debates about whether Our Lady could have theoretically had children after bearing Christ). Derek Carlsen believes the Torah gives no compensation to a raped virgin because, in God’s eyes, she has not lost her virginal status. Suffice it to say that the Bible drops hints that there is some spiritual and eternal significance in always having been a virgin but there is not enough evidence to pronounce on the heavenly status of a woman who loses her virginity against her will.

Does it matter, from a spiritual point of view, if a person chooses to resist sexual assault and pays with their life, rather than acquiescing as a survival strategy? The Catholic viewpoint, of course, holds that there is an afterlife and heroic deeds do receive their reward there. So the calculus for a Catholic faced with mortal peril looks very different from the plight of an atheist who believes they face a choice between eternal annihilation or living out one earthly lifespan bearing the trauma of being a survivor.

It would not have been a sin (on her part) for Anna to have been raped. It clearly was a heroic act to resist and break away as she did. It would have been a sin to wilfully co-operate with the rapist. That seems to leave acquiescing as the ‘morally neutral’ response – which could also be interpreted as another kind of heroism, that of planning to ‘get through’ the horrible circumstances so she could continue supporting her father and brother. We might also ask whether her decision to resist, in the heat of the moment, was motivated by a Christian sense of purity – or was it the kind of reaction any young women, of any or no creed, might make given that kind of provocation?

By raising up Anna as a role model, are we proclaiming that choosing to be a living survivor is less heroic?

The history of the early church is marked by a different kind of virgin martyr – the women who decided to entrust their virginity to Christ and then faced pressure from powerful relatives to enter marriage. In today’s climate we might focus on the abuse of human dignity represented by any kind of forced marriage rather than the Christian motive of these particular women. Nevertheless, it seems right to say that those women were martyrs both for human dignity and for Christ.

There are martyrs who choose to lay down their lives for others – the purple martyrdom of a Maximilian Kolbe or Gianna Molla.

There are martyrs who are killed simply for being Christian – think of the 21 Copts murdered by ISIS, the 7 Tibherine monks or those attending Mass in Pakistan or Indonesia caught up in the blast of suicide bombers. In some cases, martyrs are put to the further test of being given an ‘out’ if they renounce their Catholic faith, but simply being in the right place at the wrong time is enough to qualify you as a ‘red martyr’.

Then there are those who are killed for standing up for their values – values endorsed by the Catholic faith but also held by many non-Christians of the utmost integrity. For example, Blessed Marcel Callo (Nazi-occupied France) and Blessed Francesco Aleu (Spanish Civil War) were martyred not for attending Christian worship but living out their Catholic values in strained times.

When Cardinal Newman was declared ‘Blessed‘ a few years ago, Radio 4 broadcast a play about Newman’s life. The playwright imagined that Newman’s guardian angel met him at the moment of his death and declared to him – ‘You are to become a saint!’

‘Oh no!’ said Newman. ‘Not a saint! I shall be sliced up like salami and made into bite-sized lessons for schoolchildren!’

There’s always a danger with a beatification, that we take the one, most dramatic fact about the person being raised up and turn it into an over-simplified lesson. Simcha Fisher has likened these moral slices to the ‘bathwater around the baby‘ who is actually a living person with love for Christ at their heart. Ultimately, the Virgin Martyrs remind us not only that Christians are called to chastity but that we are called to resist evil and confront it heroically, without compromise.

Should we teach children that Maria Goretti is a saint because she didn’t want to be raped? No. Is Maria Goretti a saint because she thoroughly resisted being raped? Yes – but that’s an incomplete answer. First, the moral goodness is not that she kept her virginity intact, but that she never even acquiesced to evil. Second, when she showed the heroism of not acquiescing but resisting – she did this in the context of a life which was already devoted to Christ and which culminated in trying to persuade her attacker not to sin, for the good of his soul. Similarly, Blessed Anna is beatified not only for the moment of her death but the manner of her life. The short, ‘teachings to children’ version might be ‘resist evil and never compromise, even if it costs your life’. The longer answer requires a commitment to living out the Catholic faith in its fullness, which finds its fruition in this moment of crisis.

“The Catholic Church thinks it ‘s better to be a dead virgin than a rape survivor?”

“Being murdered is preferable to being raped?”

When I am caught up in the violent choices made by others, I have only one choice – how to respond. The Catholic Church thinks it’s better to enter into heaven as a hero of the resistance than to remain on earth as a wounded soldier. Most societies honour their heroes precisely because they have gone ‘beyond their duty’. May not all of us, who are wounded in some way by the sins of others, honour the few who went above and beyond?

For The Planet

Homily for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans.

Oh no! Pope Francis just made a statement about caring for the environment!

That was the reaction of someone I’m connected to on Facebook. Surely saving the planet won’t get us to heaven? Why is the Pope bothering with stuff like that?

Well, my contact was right. Saving our planet won’t automatically save your soul. But we’ve only got one planet, and our well-being is interconnected. St James spells out clearly this week that if we truly have faith in God, that faith must pour forth in actions which show that we care for our neighbours. Pope Francis says, rightly (see #217), that caring for our planet is not an optional extra or a second-rate duty for us. It’s a measure of our love.

Oh no! Pope Francis just made a statement about caring for the environment!

OK, so perhaps the environment is something that popes should be talking about. But why is he talking about this now, when the Church is facing so many other problems? It’s not surprising really. For many years, the Eastern Orthodox churches have focussed on these issues around September 1st, and three years ago Pope Francis pledged the Catholic Church to mark the same date. So we should always expect the Pope to say something about green issues at this time of year.

Oh no! Pope Francis has just made a statement about the way we should care for the environment!

Oh yes! This means it’s time to take a fresh look at the way we care for our common home, Planet Earth.

I know it’s easy to become cyncial about the things we might do, and ask whether they really make a difference. Here in Cardiff, we have to put out our waste in green bags and food caddies. But we often hear rumours that our carefully separated waste ends up in landfill anyway. Is this true? The Council says that the contents of the green recycling bags are “separated and sent on to different recycling factories for paper, plastics, glass etc”. This is true, but according to the Western Mail, some of the “sending on” takes the waste to countries as far away as China and Indonesia – 11 thousand tonnes of paper waste went to China – and there some of it may not be recycled but could be dumped with other waste.

So there’s room for improvement, but our food waste is being compsted and much metal, plastic and paper waste is being recycled. Of course, the system won’t work at all unless we sort our waste properly at home. Cardiff’s current recycling and composting rate is 60 per cent – which means we’re doing better than all nine comparable cities in England and Scotland! But we can’t rest there. The council needs to recycle another 20,000 tonnes of the city’s waste by 2025 to meet an all-Wales 70% target. One big problem is that broken glass damages the machines used to separate metal, plastic and card, so we will soon get blue wheelie bins for glass. Rather than groaning at “another thing to do”, let’s embrace this as a positive act of love for humanity and the planet. And if any of us aren’t sorting our waste properly, the Council and the Pope would both like you to start doing so now!

What else can we do? On Friday I rang a few people to ask if there was just one thing they’d recommend you do to make a difference, what would it be?

Friends of the Earth replied: “That’s a wonderful question, and I’m glad you asked it today, because it’s plastic-free Friday!” Could you go one day a week without using disposable plastic – no straws, cups, cling-film or bottled water?

The Cardiff office of Christian Aid also suggested reducing plastic – or else switching to a green energy provider. Our parish is already part of a national consortium of Catholic organisations buying electricity and gas from renewable suppliers. We all have power bills to pay, and by choosing suppliers who are building turbines and solar panels, we can drive investment in the right kind of energy. Yes, I recognise that might make our bills a little more expensive – but we can also do things to save energy, and therefore save money. You can get advice on free energy-saving measures from an all-Wales organisation called Nest.

Evangelical charity Tear Fund suggested we could eat less meat. (They have other suggestions online, too.)

But the most challenging suggestion came from the local office of CAFOD. “Buy less, and use less! Don’t consume more than your fair share! Aspire not to have more, but to be more!”

Now, it’s not always easy to work out what our fair share us. But perhaps we can start by asking “how much is more than we need?” Do we need to put so much water in the kettle before we boil it? Do we buy more food that we can use before its expiry date? Can we freeze half a loaf, rather than wait for the last slices to go mouldy? And when we do need to spend money, every puchase is a vote for the kind of world we want. If we can afford the premium, can we pay extra for goods which are fairly traded or kinder on the environment?

Sometimes the right answer is not to buy something at all. If we want something with a designer label or simply for the sake of having it, have we made a good choice? Do we need the latest technology, or can we use an older model for a couple more years? Even if we’re not ready to totally give up eating meat or flying on holidays, every time we choose an alternative is a step in the right direction.

None of us can save the planet on our own – but together we can take small steps. Jesus challenges us to carry our cross every day, even though we are far from the end of our journey. We might feel daunted and ask, “Can I really make a difference?” Yes! Every positive decision matters to God and will be noticed in heaven. So make one positive decision today, and carry your green cross home.


You can make a personal green pledge at LiveLaudatoSi.org!

The Bishops of England and Wales invite you to consider Our Common Home.

Ephphatha! Be open! (Sunday edition)

Homily for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans (Sunday morning Signed Mass, and anticipating Home Mission Sunday 2018).

“Ephphatha!”

That’s not a word you hear every day.

The Gospels are written in Greek, but Our Lord Jesus spoke Aramaic, and sometimes one of the words he spoke was so powerful, that the Gospel writers wrote down exactly what he said. The disciples who were with him on that day must have sensed God’s power flowing through him strongly at that moment – and a man who had a lifelong impediment of hearing and speech suddenly spoke and heard clearly!

And now he has a voice, what’s the first thing Jesus asks him to do?

“Don’t tell anyone about me!”

Can you imagine having experienced such a mighty miracle, knowing that everyone will want to know the story of how you found your voice, and then not being allowed to talk about it? Ouch!

But we’re told that people ignored Jesus’ request and talked about him anyway.

Any story of healing is a challenge when we experience of lack of wholeness. This week, thousands of Deaf Catholics from around the world are gathering in Lourdes for an international pilgrimage. There are well over 100 recognised miracles of healing from Lourdes – but countless thousands of pilgrims who return without the physical healing they have hoped and prayed for. If God has the power to heal, why do we experience it so rarely? Perhaps God grants miracles especially where they will help people see that a bigger issue is at stake – so this man who cannot hear or speak is a sign to us that there are people who cannot hear who Jesus us or speak of him to others.

During his life on earth, Jesus was keen not to become too famous too quickly. Otherwise he might have been arrested before he had finished his work of preaching and healing. But once he rose from the dead – and try keeping that a secret! – things changed. Before he ascended into heaven, he told his friends and followers to go into the world and spread the good news.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is completing a journey through pagan lands. The people there don’t know about the God of the Bible. Some don’t believe in any god – others believe in various Greek or Roman gods. It’s rather like Britain today, where not so many people are Christian any more. We are called to talk about Jesus in a land which knows little about him!

If you need somewhere to start, I’m going to give you two easy lines. Perhaps you can repeat them after me:

Jesus was executed but rose from the dead. (Controversial, but why did were so many of his friends willing to die for insisting this was true?)

Following Jesus will lead you to Heaven.

There’s much more that can be said – the whole Bible is a love story about God reaching out to the human race. And by healing this man who cannot hear or speak, Jesus isn’t just curing one person, he is sending us a message. “O people of the world, can you hear what God wants to say to you? Are you able to pass on his good news to others?”

“Ephphatha! Be opened!”

Open your eyes! See that Jesus is present in our world. He is there whenever Christians gather in his name, but especially when the bread and wine consecrated at Mass are present. This weekend, thousands our of brothers and sisters are gathered in Liverpool, for a great celebration of our faith in Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament. To mark this “Adoremus” festival, you are all invited to gather with Jesus on Thursday evening to pray for this parish – before Mass next Saturday, to pray for priests – and on the last Wednesday of this month, to pray for protection of human life in the womb. We also have many opportunities during the week for private prayer in our chapel. So I’d like to invite everyone who doesn’t normally visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament to come for one hour some time this month – and parents and godparents, please bring your children.

Open your lips! We’re too good at keeping Our Lord’s instruction today – “Don’t tell anyone about me!” We no longer live at a time when Jesus is in mortal danger; now we live under his command to tell the world. That’s why, next month, we’re starting our Discovering Christ course. Only by coming together in church groups where we can talk about Jesus and learn more about him, can we become comfortable sharing this message which people who aren’t church people. There’ll be more about Discovering Christ at the end of today’s Mass.

Open your hearts! Do you love Jesus? Have you experienced his love for you? Have you heard his gentle voice saying that you are his beloved brother or sister, and he wants to walk with you in good times and in bad? Only those who are open to his love can share it with others, but sometimes, through fear or doubt, our hearts are closed.

“Ephphatha! Be opened!” A long time ago, God’s power flowed through Jesus and loosened the tongue of a man who could not speak. Today, God’s power will pour out upon this altar to nourish us anew with the Body of Christ. One day soon, each of us will open our ears to what Jesus is asking us to do and our lips to flow with his praise. Open your eyes. Open your ears. Open your lips! Open your hearts! Ephphatha! In Jesus name, be open!

Ephphatha! Be open!

Homily for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans (Saturday evening Mass, with baptisms, and anticipating Home Mission Sunday 2018).

“Ephphatha!”

That’s not a word you hear every day.

The Gospels are written in Greek, but Our Lord Jesus spoke Aramaic, and sometimes one of the words he spoke was so powerful, that the Gospel writers wrote down exactly what he said. The disciples who were with him on that day must have sensed God’s power flowing through him strongly at that moment – and a man who had a lifelong impediment of hearing and speech suddenly spoke and heard clearly!

And now he has a voice, what’s the first thing Jesus asks him to do?

“Don’t tell anyone about me!”

Can you imagine having experienced such a mighty miracle, knowing that everyone will want to know the story of how you found your voice, and then not being allowed to talk about it? Ouch!

But we’re told that people ignored Jesus’ request and talked about him anyway.

During his life on earth, Jesus was keen not to become too famous too quickly. Otherwise he might have been arrested before he had finished his work of preaching and healing. But once he rose from the dead – and try keeping that a secret! – things changed. Before he ascended into heaven, he told his friends and followers to go into the world and spread the good news.

Every Christian is called to be a bearer of the good news. That’s why, as soon as these two children are baptised this evening, I will carry out the “Rite of Ephphatha”. Just as Jesus did in the Gospels, I will touch their ears and their lips, and commission them to hear God’s commands and tell the world about Jesus.

Godparents, that’s where you come in.

How many of you here this evening are godparents to at least one person?

Your highest responsibility is, by your words and example, to teach your godchildren to talk about Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is completing a journey through pagan lands. The people there don’t know about the God of the Bible. Some don’t believe in any god – others believe in various Greek or Roman gods. It’s rather like Britain today, where not so many people are Christian any more. Your godchildren are called to talk about Jesus in a land which knows little about him!

If you need somewhere to start, I’m going to give you two easy lines. Perhaps you can repeat them after me:

Jesus died to save you from Hell.

Following Jesus will lead you to Heaven.

There’s much more that can be said – the whole Bible is a love story about God reaching out to the human race. And by healing this man who cannot hear or speak, Jesus isn’t just curing one person, he is sending us a message. “O people of the world, can you hear what God wants to say to you? Are you able to pass on his good news to others?”

“Ephphatha! Be opened!”

Open your eyes! See that Jesus is present in our world. He is there whenever Christians gather in his name, but especially when the bread and wine consecrated at Mass are present. This weekend, thousands our of brothers and sisters are gathered in Liverpool, for a great celebration of our faith in Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament. To mark this “Adoremus” festival, you are all invited to gather with Jesus on Thursday evening to pray for this parish – before Mass next Saturday, to pray for priests – and on the last Wednesday of this month, to pray for protection of human life in the womb. We also have many opportunities during the week for private prayer in our chapel. So I’d like to to invite everyone who doesn’t normally visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament to come for one hour some time this month – and parents and godparents, please bring your children.

Open your lips! We’re too good at keeping Our Lord’s instruction today – “Don’t tell anyone about me!” We no longer live in a time when Jesus is in mortal danger; now we live under his command to tell the world. That’s why, next month, we’re starting our Discovering Christ course. Only by coming together in church groups where we can talk about Jesus and learn more about him, can we become comfortable sharing this message which people who aren’t church people. There’ll be more about Discovering Christ at the end of today’s Mass.

Open your hearts! Do you love Jesus? Have you experienced his love for you? Have you heard his gentle voice saying that you are his beloved brother or sister, and he wants to walk with you in good times and in bad? Only those who are open to his love can share it with others, but sometimes, through fear or doubt, our hearts are closed.

“Ephphatha! Be opened!” A long time ago, God’s power flowed through Jesus and loosened the tongue of a man who could not speak. Today, God’s power will open the fountain of baptism and join two children to the Body of Christ. One day soon, each of us will open our ears to what Jesus is asking us to do and our lips to flow with his praise. Open your eyes. Open your ears. Open your lips! Open your hearts! Ephphatha! In Jesus name, be open!

Impure, Spoilt Religion

Homily for the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans.

Today I’d like to start with a story. In a school run by nuns, the children were queuing up for lunch. At the head of the table was a large pile of apples. One of the nuns had left a note next to the pile: “Take only ONE. God is watching.”

At the other end of the table was a large pile of chocolate chip cookies. There was also a note here, written by one of the children. “Take all you want. God is watching the apples.”

When you heard today’s Gospel, you realised that Jesus was keeping an eye on the Pharisees – but he’s big enough to keep an eye on you, too! He caught the Pharisees in impure religion – emphasising minor things but missing the point of what God wants them to do. Jesus taught his apostles how to keep the key things at the centre, so it’s not surprising our letter today has St James writing to us about “pure, unspoiled religion.”

That got me thinking. What kind of things can spoil our “religion” today?

One trap we can fall into, is paying minute attention to ritual and traditions. After the Second Vatican Council, 50 years ago, the way we celebrate Mass was reformed. The most obvious change was allowing Mass to be said in modern languages – but even if the “new Mass” is celebrated in Latin, it’s very streamlined compared to what we had before. This was a big change – Mass as celebrated in Latin in 1950 was not very different from what would have been celebrated in 1650, and would have even looked similar to what was being celebrated in Rome a thousand years earlier. We know that the way of celebrating Mass evolved greatly in the first four centuries of Christianity, but for some Catholics, adjusting something that has been fixed by Popes for hundreds of years challenged their sense of identity. This was a big reason – though not the only reason – that groups like the Society of St Pius X broke away from the leadership of the Pope.

There’s nothing new about rules about rituals. Some rabbis estimate that the Law of Moses contained 613 laws about things Jews must or must not do – and many of these concerned rituals. Most of those laws no longer apply to us as Christians. And our bishops have not added many “religious” rules that we have to follow as Catholics. We are asked to fast for an hour before communion, to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, to abstain from meat on every Friday, to attend Mass on Sundays and on six extra Holy Days each year, to go to confession and receive communion at least once a year, and to receive the Church’s blessing when we get married. That’s closer to six laws than to six hundred!

Of course, some of us really don’t like having to accept any rules made by other human beings, even if they are church leaders, so let’s remember that all of these little rules are there to help us get better at loving Jesus. We choose to fast or abstain from meat on certain days when we say, “Lord, I thank you for dying for me.” We fast before communion in order to say, “Jesus, I am going to wait for you before I taste common food, because you are my priority”. We come to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days – unless we are sick or the conditions are unsafe – to reaffirm that Jesus is the most important priority in our lives.

But is he?

This brings us to the other trap – the trap of agreeing with Jesus rather than following him.

You often hear the passage from James summed up as “True religion is helping widows and orphans!”

This is true, but – like the message that God’s got his eye on the apples – it’s not the whole truth! Most of us have good hearts and naturally care about other people. You don’t have to have a religion to be a humanitarian – lots of people care about people! Millions of people who call themselves Christians have a religion that works like this: “I care about people. Jesus cared about people too! I agree with Jesus – so I must be a Christian. Perhaps some of us here today, who have grown up in Catholic families, are very comfortable with the caring side of the Church’s work.”

Caring about people is important. Next week we’ll hear St James say that you don’t really have a Christian faith if you aren’t motivated to help people in need. But it doesn’t work the other way round – you can be highly motivated to help people, but not be a follower of Jesus.

“True religion is helping widows and orphans!” – but keep going! James hasn’t finished yet! Pure unspoilt religion is also “keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world”. A few verses earlier, he wrote “Do what God’s Word tells you, don’t just listen to it.” So true religion is also focused on keeping the teachings of Jesus and not allowing ourselves to be influenced by the values of the world around us. Any good person will agree with Jesus when he tells us to love our neighbour. But it takes a follower of Jesus to disagree with the rest of the world!

So as we begin our new cycle of activities, here are some questions:

  • How are you doing at loving your enemies?
  • How are you doing at forgiving the person who offends you most?
  • How are you doing at praying to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit every day?
  • How are you doing at keeping the fasts and feasts of the church?

Our religion is about two things: loving God and loving our neighbour. Either on its own is not enough. Our Lord had to give us two commandments, not one, to sum up everything… and the child with the cookies would have needed a larger piece of paper:

God is watching both the apples and the cookies. Please help yourself, leave enough for other people, and share what you have with those in need. Don’t forget to thank him for the food!

 

A Time for Mourning; A Time for Speaking

A Letter to the People of my Parish (to be published in the next bulletin, 2 September 2018)

In the last few weeks, the news has been full of the failings of the Catholic Church – from English monasteries to American dioceses. Most of the public responses to this have been expressions of shame and regret; Pope Francis has acknowledged that the church has been “slow to respond” and has called the whole church to a time of “prayer and fasting”. To pray and fast in this way is a way of those who are guiltless expressing regret and sorrow for the guilty members of our own body, and solidarity with the victims – we are not personally responsible, but Pope Francis has echoed the words of St Paul: when one part of the church suffers, all suffer with it.

Spiritual actions are important – but practical responses are necessary. Let me state clearly that if any member of this parish – or any reader of this message – is aware that any member of the Catholic church, ordained or lay, has been guilty of any criminal act (sexual or otherwise), the right course of action is to report that person to the police, without delay. There is no need to be concerned about any “scandal” that might be caused by doing so – the guilt for the scandal lies wholly on the person who committed the crime. If we refrain from alerting the authorities, we add the scandals of “cover up” and “not preventing future crime” to the original offence. (Click for CrimeStoppersUK.)

The Catholic Church also has a very clear teaching on sexual morality. The only appropriate place for intimate sexual acts is between a man and a woman who are in a marriage blessed or recognised* by the Catholic Church. All other acts of sexual intimacy, even between consenting adults, are immoral. Our Lord spoke clearly about the need to restrain our lust, and St Paul’s letters – the earliest writings we have from the Christian Church – also speak clearly about avoiding sexual immorality. So let me also state clearly that if any member of this parish – or any reader of this message – is aware that any person holding a position of authority in the Catholic church, ordained or lay, is sustaining an immoral relationship which is not, however, criminal: this should be brought to the attention of the Catholic leader in a position of authority over them. Any person who is in such a situation should cease their immoral relationship and make use of the sacrament of reconciliation; or if not prepared to do so, should resign their position of authority in the Catholic Church.

Sexual immorality is not the only kind of immorality; it is not the only reason we might raise a concern about a person holding office. But such immorality takes place in the context of a deliberate choice to pursue a particular relationship; it is more public and more intentional than other kinds of fault. We might also, of course, express concern about violent behaviour in a person responsible for pastoral care, or when a person responsible for teaching the Catholic faith expresses views clearly at odds with Catholic teaching.

It is true that the Catholic Church teaches that every human being has the “right to a good name”, and that “detraction” is a sinThe sin of detraction does not apply when you report a concern to the authority which is duty-bound to conduct an impartial investigation to find out whether the concern is justified; nor does it apply when you need to warn a third party who may be at risk. It does apply if you needlessly repeat the allegation to third parties who are not in a position to investigate, and have no legitimate need to be informed.

I make these statements not because I expect that they apply to any current situation in this parish, but to underline the seriousness of how we have failed as a church. The greater responsibility is on our senior church leaders to handle these matters appropriately; but we are all free to approach the police or social services, or notify our concerns to a higher tier of authority in the church when they seem to have been ignored by a lower one.

Let me be clear that I am not asking for tale-telling about someone who has had a single moment of moral weakness which they might then regret and repent. The heart of the message of Christ is that when we fail to live up to the high standards to which he calls us, forgiveness and mercy are offered to us freely. But to obtain forgiveness we need a “firm purpose of amendment”, a resolve not to fall back into the pattern of immoral behaviour. And we have learned the hard way that those who commit the more serious offenses cannot be trusted to mend their ways after a simple warning; reconciliation to God does not automatically mean rehabilitation to a trusted role in the community.

Sometimes situations arise which are not black and white, but tinged some shade of grey. If they concern a child or a vulnerable adult who may be at risk, the right thing to do is always to take advice. You can ring our parish safeguarding co-ordinator, Gareth Hayes (details are on the front cover of every parish bulletin) or the Diocesan Safeguarding Office (029 2036 5961). If you are really not sure whether to report a situation, you can telephone anonymously (dial 141 before your call to block your caller ID), you don’t have to give your name, and you can describe a “situation” without giving the names of the persons involved. You can then get advice on whether what you know is at the level where you have a legal or moral responsibility to pass on the information to police or social services, and on the most appropriate way to do so.

It is not enough for us, as an institution, to hang our heads in shame; we must pledge ourselves, one and all, to act with the utmost integrity. Every person who holds office in the Catholic Church is a forgiven sinner; no-one who remains in office should be an obstinate sinner. This is the balance of justice and mercy to which Our Lord calls us, and we are all responsible for upholding this standard. As we start this new academic year, let us make a new beginning and build a better church.

Pastor Gareth

If you have been personally affected by criminal or immoral behaviour and need support, there are organisations and individuals ready and willing to help: you may wish to contact Grief to Grace, find a counsellor recommended by the Association of Christian Counsellors – or even contact a local priest or deacon. The vast majority of clergy will deal with you sensitively and compassionately, unlike those few whose reprehensible behaviour has been highlighted in the media of late.

* The Catholic Church recognises as true marriages any civil or religious wedding between an unmarried non-Catholic man and an unmarried non-Catholic woman. More complex rules for recognition apply when a Catholic marries without the Church’s blessing or when a divorced person enters a second marriage. I do not wish to spell this out in detail here; I simply wish to acknowledge that there are marriages which the Catholic Church recognises as valid even though they are not blessed by a Catholic ceremony. However, a non-Catholic married to a non-Catholic is unlikely to be serving in a position of teaching or governance in a Catholic context.

Serving in the Court of the Lord

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Patronal Feast (moved to this weekend from 23 July) – readings specially chosen as follows:

This weekend is a great weekend! Things which have been planned, expected, and worked towards for a long time will come to pass!

By Sunday evening, we will know who has won Wimbledon!

By Sunday evening, we will know who has won the World Cup!

By Sunday evening, a number of you will be the newest members of the Catholic Church!

But I’d like to start with tennis.

There are some important spiritual lessons we can learn from tennis. Did you know that heaven is like an open tennis tournament? God invites us to serve in his courts! When we make a fault, we have the opportunity to try again! And the match starts with an important announcement. “Love All! Love All!”

On 21st July, in the year 1679, a man was playing tennis. The tennis court was in the centre of Cardiff, near St John’s Anglican Church at The Hayes. The player’s name was Philip Evans, and he was a Catholic priest – a member of the Jesuit religious order. His game was interrupted with news of something he had been expecting for a long time – but it was not happy news.

“Mr Evans,” said the jailer, “you are to be executed tomorrow. Please return to your cell in Cardiff Castle.”

“What’s the rush?” replied the priest. “Can’t I finish my game?” And indeed he did.

Why was Mr Evans going to be executed? In those days it was illegal for a Catholic priest to operate in Wales – or in England. For four years, St Philip Evans had worked in secret, celebrating Mass, baptising babies, hearing confessions. But in December 1678, he had been caught, and jailed in Cardiff Castle. He had been put on trial and found guilty of being a Catholic priest. When he was sentenced to death, the politicians decided to wait until the summer so he could be executed on a nice sunny day with a large crowd witnessing what happens to Catholic priests!

The day after that fateful tennis match, Philip Evans, together with another priest, John Lloyd, were taken to a field outside the small town of Cardiff – today we call that area Roath, where Richmond Road meets Crwys Road. There they were executed: first they were hung on a gallows, but cut down before they died; then they were drawn – their internal organs were pulled out; and finally, they were quartered – their bodies cut into four parts as a warning to other Catholics.

Why did Saints Philip Evans and John Lloyd risk such a terrible fate? They were Catholic priests. They believed that it was right to be loyal to the Catholic Faith, even though the law of England said that it was wrong.

They believed that the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, was meant to be the leader of God’s Church across the whole world. Some of you, already baptised, who want to become Catholics today, will declare that you are willing to accept the leadership of the Pope.

They believed that when a Catholic priest blesses bread and wine, it truly becomes Jesus’ own Body and Blood. We can only follow Jesus’ instruction, “Do this in memory of me”, by going to Mass celebrated by a Catholic (or Orthodox) priest. On Saturday morning I took a trip to Abergavenny, to borrow this chalice: it is from the 17th Century and may have been used* by St Philip Evans himself. If the priests who used the chalice had not worked in secret in Wales, Catholics would not have been able to follow Jesus’ instruction. Some of you will receive Holy Communion for the first time today, and you may do so from this ancient chalice!

I have a word of warning for our children who are becoming Catholics today. You will meet lots of people, including many other children, who say “I’m a Catholic” but who never go to church. For every Catholic who does go to Mass regularly, there are five more people in Wales who say “I’m a Catholic” but don’t go to church except perhaps for Christmas and Easter. Do not follow their example. If you don’t want to come and be part of Mass every weekend, please don’t become a Catholic today. It’s not too late to back out. But if you do become a Catholic, please take it as seriously as St Philip Evans did. He risked his life so people could have Mass every Sunday. When your friends invite you to parties, or you get involved in sports or dancing on weekend, please put Mass first. You can do the other things, but work around Mass. Nothing else that you could do on the weekend is worth dying for!

Parents, I’d like to thank you for supporting your children in the journey that brought them to today. In the First Reading, we heard the remarkable story of a mother who urged her children not to break God’s law, even if it cost them their lives. St Philip Evans reminds us that we need to be committed to our religion. And speaking of commitment, I’m now switching from tennis to football.

Next week the World Cup will be over. For many of those football players, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Some of their nations won’t qualify for the next World Cup. Many of the players will be too old in four years’ time. But those players won’t leave the world of football. The ones who truly love football will become officials, or coaches, like Gareth Southgate. They won’t play on the world stage again, but they’ll stay with the Beautiful Game.

Next week, children, you will no longer be part of our special group of “children preparing”. Each of you will be “one of us”. Then you will need to ask yourself the same question as everyone else who is already Catholic and has come to celebrate our Patron Saint today: “What must I do now for our Beautiful Church?”

Our other Bible Readings today remind you of what it means to be on God’s team. Jesus will be your shepherd. He died so that you could be baptised and take part in Mass. You have been chosen by him to be part of his church and filled with his Holy Spirit. And now, lest this sermon go into Extra Time, let us begin by blessing our font!


* Judging by the pictures from this website, Abergavenny have loaned me the chalice thought to have belonged to St David Lewis rather than the one which likely belonged to St Philip Evans – no matter, they died for the same cause!