Do You Look Like Jesus?

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Do you look like Jesus?

There’s a story about a little girl who was puzzled about God. “Mummy, our Sunday School teacher said that God is bigger than we are. He said God is so big that He could hold the world in His hands. Is that true?”

“Yes,” said Mum. “That’s true, darling.”

“But Mummy, the teacher also said that God comes to live inside us when we get baptised and receive Holy Communion. Is that true, too?”

“Yes,” said Mum. “That’s right. That’s what happens.”

The little girl was now truly puzzled. “So Mum, if God is bigger than us and He lives inside us, wouldn’t He show through?”


When Our Lord took Peter, James and John up Mount Tabor, he wanted them to see something that would help them understand who He was. Jesus glowed with the light of God. But if Jesus is within us, shouldn’t we should glow with God’s presence? If not with ethereal light, then at least by our actions. And this Second Sunday of Lent is the day set out by the Church to invite everyone who wants to live the fullness of our Catholic life to examine our lives and go to confession.

It’s easy to examine our lives against a list of “Don’ts”. Next Sunday our first reading will be the Ten Commandments, many of which are “Thou Shalt Nots”. It’s much more challenging to try to understand what God is asking us to DO. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Did God want a human being to be killed as part of a religious ritual? No, of course not. But was God testing Abraham to see if this faithful man would follow God’s will whatever the cost? Oh yes.

Can you imagine the inner turmoil Abraham must have experienced before setting out with Isaac? Any Dad would have been appalled at the very idea. For Abraham, his son Isaac was already a miracle-baby who carried God’s promise to be father of a multitude. And yet Abraham must have been supremely sure of what God was asking to even set out on this journey of sacrifice.

When God asks us to do something more for him, we might become angry. What do we have to sacrifice within out own ego or comfortable lifestyle? Yet the depth of our anger is itself a sign that God truly is challenging us to change, because we’re also aware of that divine calling within us: “We can’t go on as we are!”

I’m going to run through some headings now… if one of these makes you feel angry, it might just be God inviting you to make a deeper change this Lent. And as I speak of each expectation, ask yourself, “In this area of my life, do I look like Jesus? Is He bursting out of me?”

God expects that we WORSHIP as Jesus honoured his Father. Do we speak to God when we are gathered with our family and friends? Grace before meals? A moment of prayer each day when the family is gathered in one place? In your family, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we CONNECT with other members of our church community. When was the last time you came to a church social event? If you don’t normally stay for coffee after Sunday morning Mass, what stops you? If you are free this Wednesday evening, are you planning on coming to the Station Mass with Archbishop George? Jesus ate and drank and enjoyed time with his disciples. In this community, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we EXPLORE our faith and deepen our knowledge. When did you last pick up a Christian book? Are you reading this Lent’s Walk With Me or our Christmas gift of Rediscover Jesus? If you don’t normally come to our parish “Connect & Explore” groups, what stops you? The boy Jesus asked questions in the Temple, and as a man spoke to crowds of thousands. In your hunger to learn God’s word, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we VOLUNTEER our time and talents for the good of this parish and the world around us. Many things can be done even while we are at Sunday Mass – we are blessed with so many altar servers and welcomers. We need more people willing to sing and help with music, though. Some tasks can be done at times which suit you – the church needs to be cleaned at some point in the week, and we need more volunteer cleaners. Jesus stepped up and helped people even when he was weary. In the way you serve this parish and the wider community, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we INVITE people to step into our community. Today’s prayers are a call to confession especially for those among us who, already baptised, now wish to become full members of the Catholic Church this Easter. We rejoice! But our church will not be complete until all the people of Llanedeyrn, Pentwyn, Pontprennau and St Edeyrn’s Village are worshipping with us. One easy thing to do is to take one of these fliers and invite a friend to come to the Friday lunchtime talk at the Cathedral during Lent. Jesus looked at his future disciples and said, “Come and follow me!” In the way you introduce your friends to our Catholic community, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we INVEST in the work of the church. Today we have an opportunity to support CAFOD in its work empowering people in countries who don’t enjoy our level of wealth. Next month we will be looking at the financial needs of our own parish for the coming year. The apostles had a fund to help the poor, and Jesus praised generous giving to the Temple.* In the way you use your money, do you look like Jesus?

God has high expectations of us. None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something. Perhaps one or two of the things I have mentioned have stirred a sense of discomfort in you. If you’re aware of avoiding something God is calling you do to, I’ve got good news. First, decide in your heart to do it. Next, come and talk to me in the confessional about why you’ve been avoiding God’s call. Most importantly, go and do it! And then, you will look a little bit more like Jesus!

expectations


* A very good summary of how Jesus and the Apostles supported the poor is on this page by Jehovah’s Witnesses. While I don’t share their views about the ‘world to come’, and don’t endorse any links that may go from that page, they do fairly summarise the things that Jesus said and did!

Created in Love

Sermon at the Monday Evening Celebration at the Sion Community Mission in Clayton & Ashley.

Scripture: I John 3:1-2

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”

I do! I say these words, or some version of them, every Sunday at Mass!

But what exactly do I mean by calling God the “creator”?

We live in the midst of wonderful, creative, human beings. Each of us creates things every day, from a cup of tea or coffee to the content of a dozen emails. When we see a complicated object, our first instinct is to ask “Who made that? And what’s it for?”

200 years ago, a cleric of Lincoln Cathedral, William Paley, pondered what would happen if he went out for a walk on the common. If he found a stone, he wouldn’t ask who made it and why it was there – stones happen. But suppose he found a watch? Surely something as complicated as a watch means there must be a watchmaker? And 200 years ago, there was only one possible answer: God made it.

But maybe there’s another explanation. What if every living thing contains a template of how to grow, a template that gets tweaked when it passes on to the next generation? That would mean the most successful – the most fitting – templates survive and multiply. This was the idea at the heart of Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

And do living things really contain templates? They do. We call them genes. The earliest proof of this was found by a Bavarian Catholic monk, Gregor Mendel, who studied what happened when you cross-breed pea plants. But it took a long time for other scientists to give him credit, because he only published in a local journal. Now we know exactly how genes work – they are built using a chemical called deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, which holds together four chemical building blocks.

The Oxford biologist, Richard Dawkins, has written many books explaining how all this works for an audience who aren’t specialists. One was called The Blind Watchmaker – the random processes of evolution lead to plants and animals so complicated we would assume they had been designed, but evolution can get there without the help of a pre-determined blueprint. Some Christian critics objected that it wasn’t very likely that random chance could take all the steps needed to create all of our complex organs. But it’s not impossible, and Dawkins underlined that by writing another book, Climbing Mount Improbable.

One of the things evolution suggests is that our brains are hard-wired, when we see something complicated, to ask “Who made that? And what’s it for?” If we’re living among human beings who might be our rivals, that’s a good survival strategy… it might stop us falling into a carefully-laid trap. But we might fall into another trap – the trap of looking for an intelligent hand behind something which has a natural explanation.

Evolution happens. We have hospital superbugs because bacteria can evolve very quickly. We have different breeds of cats and dogs, and peas and wheat, because we have selectively bred these animals and plants over human history. And when we dig up fossils, we can compare both the body shape and the DNA of ancient life with life today. All of these are pieces of a jigsaw. There are lots of missing links, but the few pieces we have fit into a clear pattern.

One thing we don’t have a good idea about in biology, is how the very first living cell came into being. Evolution can’t rescue us here – before the first set of DNA came together in a living cell, some very special chemistry must have happened. Was that a miracle guided by God? Well, perhaps – but be careful! Science tells us that lots of things that looked really unlikely in the past turn out to have a good explanation. Maybe if we understood this better it wouldn’t look like such a miracle, too.

What about the Universe as a whole? How did that get going? 100 years ago, most astronomers though the cosmos was basically unchanging. The stars and galaxies had always been in their place and always would be. Then Albert Einstein came up with the General Theory of Relativity, and we realised that gravity would eventually cause all the galaxies in the universe to fall together. But clearly that hasn’t happened, so Einstein put a “fudge factor” into his maths to balance it out.

Enter Mgr Georges Lemaître, a Belgian Catholic priest and mathematical genius. He pointed out to Einstein that if the Universe were expanding, the fudge factor wouldn’t be needed. Almost everyone said that was silly, the Universe wasn’t expanding. But an American named Edwin Hubble went off to measure the speeds of our nearest galaxies and confirmed that all but two were moving away from us. Hubble got his name attached to a space telescope you’ve probably heard of. Lemaître get his name attached to the maths which describe the expansion of the universe, which are a bit less famous. Two years later, he pointed out that if the universe was expanding it must have started from a point, which he called a ‘cosmic egg’. One of his rivals, Fred Hoyle, called that a silly idea – who would believe the universe began with a “big bang”? Lemaître did – and he lived long enough to learn, a few months before he died, that radio engineers had picked up a signal from space which matched the radiation which would be left in the universe from a Big Bang beginning.

Well tonight, our theme is “Created in love”, and so far, I haven’t given much credit to God for creating anything. When we see beautiful things in nature – the swirling gases of a planet like Jupiter, a beautiful nebula in space, or our deepest peek at the distant universe – our human instinct is to go “wow, only God could have made that”. Actually, the more we understand about science, the more we can write down the rules, the easier it is to explain how these beautiful patterns come about without needing God to fine-tune anything.

But that still leaves one question. Where do these rules come from in the first place? Perhaps there is only one possible set of rules that works without causing contradictions. If so, those rules spring from the mind of God, whose nature includes all things that are true. If there’s more than one possible set of rules, did God do some selective choosing?

The Catholic Church leaves us free to believe in the Big Bang and in Evolution. We’re also free to believe that God created the world by a miracle a few thousand years ago. But if God did create it more recently, all the evidence indicates that God made it looking as if it had been around for a lot longer, in a Universe more than 13 billions years old, on a planet 4.6 billion years old, and with fossils going back for millennia.

Perhaps we get misled when we open the Bible and the first thing we see is the Book of Genesis. But how often have you watched a film, or read a novel, where the opening sequence isn’t part of the main story, but is something like a dream or fantasy sequence to set the scene? If you were an ancient Hebrew and you opened a scroll to see the words “In the beginning…” that’s like us seeing *“Once upon a time…” or “In a galaxy far far away…” – it’s a cue that what’s coming next is meant to teach us through poetry and story, not science and history. Jesus told stories – think of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son – about people who never actually lived. In the same way, the earliest part of the Bible also tells stories.

What, then, is the Bible trying to teach us by giving us the story of the Six Days of Creation in Chapter 1, and Adam & Eve in Chapter 2? Every day God creates something in Chapter 1, we are told “it was good”. When God creates human beings, “it was very good”. The story restarts in Chapter 2, which is a different picture of creation. God creates Adam, and then from his rib, Eve. They walked in friendship with God “and they were not ashamed”. God sees that we are good. We have no need to be ashamed. We are invited to be friends with the God of the universe! This is a powerful message! And it is all the more powerful when you realise that most of the other cultures who lived alongside the ancient Hebrews told different stories, much less complimentary about human beings. For them, we were nothing more than bits and pieces who had grown out of the limbs hacked off battling giants and demigods. Would you want to see yourself as the toenail of some minor deity? No thank you!

The whole Old Testament is a story of God trying to tell human beings that they are loved. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, Elijah and Ezekiel each receive some kind of visit from God. The message is not only for them, but for their descendants or their communities. When Jeremiah was called to be a prophet, he was told that God knew him from his mother’s womb – that’s where the words of our opening song, “O the Word of My Lord”, come from. God’s words to Jeremiah! Through the prophet Isaiah, God consoled the people who had seen Jerusalem destroyed: “I will not forget you. I have written your name on the palms of my hands.”

The point of Genesis is to reassure us that we are made in the “image and likeness” of God. Because we are intelligent, because we are creative, we are like God. God is love, and we understand about love because we are people who love. Sometimes that breaks our hearts. If we are parents of grown-up children, we know we can’t shadow their every move, protecting them from their own foolishness. But when that phone-call comes at three in the morning – “Daddy, I’ve made a stupid mistake – come and rescue me!” – what Dad wouldn’t attend to his daughter like a shot?

When the Bible speaks of love, it often uses the word agape. This is not the same word used for sexual attraction, nor is it the word for just “liking” something. Agape is the kind of love which chooses the well-being of another person and makes whatever sacrifices are needed for the good of the other. This is the love that God has towards us. This is the “kind of great love” which the Father has lavished on us.

Later this week, we’ll look more closely at what it means for God to save us from our sins and forgive our faults. But for tonight, we are invited to stay with the wonder of what it means to be God’s children. All human beings are made in the “image and likeness” of God. But those of us who have been baptised have an extra privilege! We have been adopted into God’s family, we have been granted the right to call God, “Father!” For many of us, this happened when we were babies; some of us accepted the invitation to God’s family when we were older. Either way, we are member of God’s family – not because we have done anything to earn his love, but because He loves us anyway.

Perhaps you have doubted whether there can be a God because you worried that we would have to reject sensible things we have learned about science. Relax! You don’t! The Second Vatican Council said (Gaudium et Spes #36) that it was the rightful job of science to follow the evidence and come to whatever conclusions were warranted. But way back in the third and fifth centuries, the great scholars Origen (Contra Celsus 6.6) and St Augustine (De Genesi ad literam 1:19–20) already said we didn’t have to take Genesis literally!

Are you a bad Catholic if you don’t believe there was really, historically, a Prodigal Son or Good Samaritan? No, of course not.

Are you a bad Catholic if you don’t believe there was really, historically, a couple called “Adam & Eve”? No, of course not. We are asked to believe that we are all descendants of the first human being who sinned – but that’s no different from saying that we are all descendants of the first of our ancestors who had the extra brain capacity needed to think about right and wrong!

If you don’t want to take my word, here are a couple of popes:

Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than an hypothesis. – John Paul II, 1996 (original French)

We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. – Benedict XVI, 2005

“I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”

I do! I say these words, or some version of them, every Sunday at Mass!

But what exactly do I mean by calling God the “creator”? I mean that the universe unfolds via the Big Bang and Evolution, following rules which come from God. This may be a rather hands-off kind of creation, but that doesn’t bother me in the least. God’s word tells me clearly that God loves me and wants me to be part of his family on earth and happy with him for ever in heaven. One day God will change the rules of the universe so that all of us who have ever lived will be raised forever in indestructible bodies. I don’t know how that’s going to work, but I believe it because Jesus rose from the dead. That’s why, with a physics degree from Oxford and a PhD in astrophysics from Cardiff, I am content to stand before you and profess that not only do I believe in God who created me, but: “I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen!”

A cloud of gas in space, resembling a human eye

The Helix Nebula, sometimes nicknamed the “Eye of God”

Forgiven Through Love

Sermon at the Penitential Service at the Sion Community Mission in Clayton & Ashley.

Scripture: Ezekiel 36:24-29a

When I was a child, I wasn’t naughty that often – but often enough that I remember what would happen next. First Mum or Dad would give me a telling-off, and send my to my bedroom. Then, maybe half-an-hour later, Mum would come to my bedroom, and with one single word she would ask a question. With one single word, I would answer it.

“Friends?”

“Friends!”

When I look back at this through adult eyes, I see that Mum needed me to learn that whatever I did wrong, I would always be forgiven. That’s what a mother’s love does.

The message of the Bible is clear. God is a Father who, because of his great love for us, longs to forgive us. In fact, there are only two things that can prevent God forgiving us. The first is our refusal to admit we’ve done wrong. The second is our unwillingness to offer that same forgiveness to other people.

Perhaps some of you here tonight have not experienced that same loving forgiveness from your parents that I did from mine. Perhaps the idea of God as a forgiving Father feels uncomfortable because your earthly father didn’t forgive easily. All I can say is, will you give God a chance? If you blame God for not allowing you to experience the tender love of human parents, will you forgive Him for not living up to your hopes and expectations?

Your Father in heaven loves you! On Monday evening, many of you will have picked up a copy of the “Father’s love letter” from the Lady Chapel. The whole Bible is full of expressions of his love. The passage we’ve just heard from Ezekiel declares that God longs to pour healing water over us, and cleanse us. The other great prophets of the Old Testament also speak of God’s hunger to forgive us. Many of the Psalms, inspired by the Holy Spirit, call upon our heavenly Father to cleanse and restore us. And if that were not enough, God sent his only Son, Jesus, to say to many souls, “Your sins are forgiven!” and to call upon His Father to forgive even those who nailed him to the Cross.

Tonight we are invited to receive God’s forgiveness through one of the Church’s Sacraments, Penance. Why do we have this Sacrament? Jesus gave to his Apostles, authority to forgive sins. The Apostle James wrote “confess your sins to one another”, and the authority given by the first Apostles to the bishops and priests who came after them means that when we hear the words of absolution, we need have no doubt whatsoever that our sins are truly forgiven.

We sometimes call this Sacrament, Confession. In order to receive forgiveness, the first step is to acknowledge that we have sinned, by naming our sins aloud to a priest. We don’t need to be too worried about forgetting something trivial. The Church assures us that “When Christ’s faithful strive to confess all the sins that they can remember, they undoubtedly place all of them before the divine mercy for pardon.” But if we are conscious of mortal sin – if we are responsible for some grave action or omission, in which we knew how serious it was and were free to make a different choice – these sins must be mentioned. If you’re not sure whether a sin was mortal or not, confess it anyway – then you can be sure it has been forgiven!

There is one other sin which you might want to make a point of confessing this evening. It’s that little one you’d rather not mention because it’s a very small matter, but quite embarrassing. It’s not mortal, so you don’t have to confess it – but it’s your secret pleasure. It’s the one you don’t want to mention because of what you fear the priest will think of you. Well, I can tell you what this priest will think of you. I will think you are very brave, and serious about living your Christian life in a way most pleasing to God! So better out than in! Tonight’s the night! Confess everything and be cleansed!

We commonly call Confession the Sacrament of “Reconciliation” – a word which has a deep and hidden meaning. RE – to do something again. CON – a joining term, meaning two things are coming together. TION – a word ending indicating an action is taking place. And the least obvious portion, CILIA – which comes from a Latin word meaning “little hairs”, in this case your eyelashes. RE-CON-CILIA-TION literally means, “Let’s look one another in the eyes again.” Just as my mother would come to me in my bedroom, so God comes through the person of his priest and asks for a simple answer:

“Friends?”

“Friends!”

But God’s promise, given out of love, is for more than forgiveness.

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; I will make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.

Because Reconciliation is a Sacrament, it includes an absolute promise from God of help in our earthly lives. It’s not only a promise that God will hit the reset button on our relationship. It’s also a promise that He will give us some help to fight against the temptations we have confessed. But God can’t do that without our co-operation. St Thomas Aquinas wrote that “grace perfects nature”. God builds on what we offer Him.

It’s not enough to simply name our sins to the priest. God also asks us: “What are you going to do, to avoid falling into that sin again?” If we’re struggling with anger, we might need to learn something about anger management. If we’ve fallen into using pornography, we might need to restrict our own access to the Internet – there’s a website called ClickToKick that can help you with that. If we’re worried that we don’t pray enough, we need to make a plan for where and when prayer should fit into the rhythm of our day and our week. So whatever YOUR sin is, what will you choose to do about it?

You will see that at the front of the aisle, there is a bowl of holy water. When you have been to confession, and received absolution from a priest, I invite you to go to the holy water and bless yourself. Remember God’s promise, to wash away your uncleanness and plant a new heart within you. Tell God what new choice you will make in time of temptation. Ask God to give you strength to avoid sin and live this better life.

See, among us now are many priests who have come to lend their voices to God and their ears to you. God is longing for you to confess your sins, so he can restore you to friendship. These priests will hear your confession, absolve your sins, and propose a penance – perhaps they will even ask you to go to the holy water as your penance. To prepare ourselves to receive this gift of forgiveness, and the grace of turning away from sin, let’s stand now and pray in words given to us by God Himself:

A pure heart create for me, O God, put a steadfast spirit within me.

 

Catholic Statistics

Before you decide whether it’s worth reading this blog post or not, there are two things you might want to know about me. The first is that I have a PhD which included rigorous work analysing statistical data. The second is that I have a track record in analysing Catholic statistics across England and Wales: previously on my website but these days I’m working via this blog. Now read on!

How many Catholics are there in England and Wales? That’s not a very straightforward question. First of all, what is it that you are trying to measure?

One possibility is to count “canonical Catholics” – those who are Catholics according to canon law. Once a person is baptised as Catholic, or a person already baptised is formally received into the Catholic Church, that person is “a Catholic”. For a time, there was a provision in canon law that you could defect from the Catholic Faith by a “formal act” – that would be officially joining another religious community or giving official notice that you no longer wanted to be reckoned as a Catholic. But that provision is no longer in canon law; and so of all the souls baptised or received as Catholics, relatively few people have ever left the canonical status of being bound as “a Catholic”.

What we do have easy access to, are the statistics on the number of baptisms which take place and receptions into the Catholic faith. I’m sure an actuary could make some reasonable estimates for the death rate and the immigration and emigration rate of Catholics and, rooted on the solid figures for baptism, we could come to some a reasonable estimate of the number of “canonical Catholics” in England and Wales – but would that be a useful number?

Another quantity we can easily measure is attendance at weekend masses. The bishops have decreed that an annual count should take place over the four weekends of October but this is subject to ambiguity, and may not even be done consistently. Several factors are ill defined:

  • If October begins on a Sunday, do we start counting that weekend or the following weekend?
  • If October begins on a Thursday or Friday and contains five weekends, do we omit the first or the last?
  • Do we count only adults, or children?
  • If children, do we include babies?
  • If babies, do we include the unborn babies of visibly pregnant parishioners? (I don’t think anyone seriously would, but theologically, they are also human persons attending Mass.)
  • Do we omit double-counting persons attending a second Mass that weekend including the priest himself, sacristans, etc?

Even when we resolve the questions of when we count and who should be included, that number will include non-Catholics at Mass for various reasons (supportive parents or spouses, prospective converts) and occasionally those non-regular churchgoers attending a special Mass for family reasons (a baptism at weekend Mass or honouring a Mass intention for a special anniversary). If that parish requires children preparing for First Communion to register attendance for a few months, in a period that runs over October, this will also affect the figures.

But for the rest of this post I’m going to consider a third measure which is significant: those people who, when asked the question, “What religion are you?” would spontaneously say, “I’m a Catholic.” This data isn’t available from the 10-yearly census of the entire population which takes place in the UK: although there has been a religion question, all “Christians” are classed together. Fortunately, there’s also something called the British Social Attitudes Survey. This is based on a much smaller sample but it does ask questions about religion; and it’s possible to log in and search the database to find out how religion tracks with different regions of Great Britain, with the age of the respondents, and so on.

To use the database, you first need to register (it’s free and simple). Once you have logged in, you need to choose the Survey Years you wish to search. Then from the Contents List, choose RELIGION and from that menu, RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION (or for some older datasets, you may need RELIGIOUS OBSERVATION). You need to click the category on “Respondent’s Religion” if you wish to distinguish Catholics from others – this will then appear in the “Working List” on the top left of your screen. You can then choose any other religious or other data you wish to cross-reference with Catholicism, and this will also be added to the Working List.

Next, go to the Working List in the top left corner and click on “R’s religion”. Near the top right corner, click on “CrossTabs”. You can then choose any category on the screen to sort the data, e.g. sex, age, or any additional questions on your Working List. DON’T click “R’s religion” on the right side, which would only cross-reference the data with itself. When you have made your selection, scroll to the bottom of the page and click “View Results”.

The most recent survey accessible is from 2016. It included a question on how often the Respondent attended worship. For the Catholics, 23.3% went at least once a week; 19.5% went once or twice a month; 24.9% went ‘rarely’ (pooling once or twice a year with ‘less often’) and 31.6% of self-declared Catholics ‘never’ attend worship.

Selecting by sex, we see that 6.6% of male respondents and 10.6% of female respondents (across the whole of the UK) self-identified as Catholic; very similar figures occur in the 2015 survey, indicating a consistent likelihood for women rather than men to retain their sense of religious identity (there is no strong reason to assume that fewer boys than girls were baptised).

The highest proportion of Catholics is found in Scotland and NW England, where nearly 14% of the population self-identify as Catholics. Here in Wales, we have the lowest proportion of self-identifying Catholics anywhere in Great Britain, with only 5.0%.

Within the Archdiocese of Cardiff, the Mass Attendance reported across the diocese was 14,497 in 2016 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), down from 18,046 in 2009. Across the whole Welsh Province, deducting parish figures from Herefordshire, Mass Attendance in 2016 was 25,890. With an estimated national population of 3.168 million, this makes the Catholics actually attending Mass 0.82% of the total population; less than one in five of those who self-identify as Catholic therefore attend Mass frequently.

The database does not allow filtering by three variables at the same time, so it’s not possible to cross-check how many of the Catholics who report weekly attendance are in Wales – and that level of refinement would probably draw on such small numbers of respondents that the result would begin to lose accuracy. But across all members of any religion in Wales, only 10.2% claim to attend worship weekly or more often.

When religious identity is binned by age (15-24, 25-34 etc.) we find that across Great Britain, for those identifying as Anglicans or “other Christians”, the older you are, the more likely you are to identify as such. But for Catholics, this peaks in the 45-54 group with 10.4% identifying as Catholic. For all other ages 25-74, roughly 9% call themselves Catholic, and for the youngest group, only 5.3% of 15-24 year olds label themselves as such.

Across all religions, when attendance at worship is binned by age group, there is a surprising spike where 18.9% of 35-44 year olds attend weekly or more often. Every other age bin 15-64 fluctuates around 11% weekly attendance by little more than one percentage point. It would be fascinating to explore the reasons – liberation from child-care, mid-life crisis, or immigration of observant professionals?

There is a great deal more data available; just in the 2016 dataset, it is possible to analyse Catholics according to education, employment, political stance and marital status. The religious questions asked in other years include belief in the Devil, anti-religious prejudice and experience of conversion, support for faith schools, and politicians’ religious viewpoints or lack thereof. Here is a vast and free resource for researchers to delight in. Enjoy!

Urgently Calling

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

Before I became a priest, I worked closely with a man who was a full-time evangelist, promoting the Catholic faith across and beyond the British Isles. His voicemail messages were unmistakable. “Mr Leyshon – I need to talk to you! Please call me urgently!”

I soon learned that for my friend, “urgent” was his default setting. From anyone else, such a phone call would foreshadow a dying daughter or a blazing building. For this man, it just meant we needed to put a date in a diary. It’s easy to over-use the word “urgent”. And yet… today’s Bible readings are steeped in a sense of urgency.

Despite hiding for three days in the belly of a whale-sized fish, Jonah finally carried out God’s command and preached that Nineveh would be destroyed. Amazingly – perhaps hinting that this is more story than history – the people respond immediately and wholeheartedly, mending their ways, and keeping a fast. When Our Lord walks up to Peter and Andrew, and then James and John, they immediately down tools and follow his footsteps. The Bible doesn’t record what Zebedee thought when his sons abandoned him on the spot – and in that culture, respect for a parent counted for a great deal! There must have been something about the person of Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, which was overwhelmingly attractive, even when he hadn’t yet worked miracles or gathered a band of followers with him.

Last Wednesday was the feast day of St Anthony of the Desert. 300 years after Christ, he heard the Bible being read: Jesus invited a rich young man to sell everything and follow him. These words struck Anthony so powerfully that he did just that, moving into the Egyptian desert, first as a hermit, then as Abbot over the community of monks inspired to join him.

But what about us? There may be someone here today who is free to choose a new path in life, who can join a monastery or a convent, become a hermit or enter seminary to try for the priesthood. If you know that God’s voice is whispering to you right now, stop struggling against it, and have a chat with me (or another person you trust), about taking the next step. Whatever you’re waiting for, it won’t get better if you don’t do something about it!

For most of us, though, we’ve made the big decisions already. We’ve chosen to start a family – or not – and many of us have chosen a career in which we’ve invested a great deal of time and training. Yet within our chosen lifestyle, God does not stop calling us. And this can be irritating! If we take God’s presence in our lives seriously, we’ll find ourselves asking deep questions: How can I know what God wants ME to do? I wish I could be sure I’m on the right track…

Finding out might not be as hard as you think! Hasidic Jews tell the story of Rabbi Zusya, who said this: At the end of this life, when I am judged, the question I will be asked is not “Why were you not Moses?” but – “Why were you not Zusya?” The Rabbi understood that everyone has a call. God wants you to be yourself! And to be truly yourself, that means making the most of the gifts and talents God has given you. Blessed John Henry Newman understood this too, in his famous poem “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another… He knows what he is about!”

Sometimes we need a bit of help to see just what our gifts and talents are. You may have undertaken exercises in your workplace to find out what your Meyers-Briggs personality type is, or to work out your role in a team according to the Belbin model – and there are many similar tests. These results tell you something about yourself as a person – what do they suggest about the role that would be right for you in your parish community? I can’t give you all a test right now, but I can suggest some simple questions:

  • With unlimited resources, what would you do for God?
  • What is it, that you love to do?
  • How can you combine talents and passions to achieve your calling?

In a recent survey, 53% of Americans did not strongly agree “that in my parish, I have an opportunity to do what I do best”. Often we get drafted to help with a project because a parish is a small community where “somebody has to do it”. Church can be like one of those military movies where the captain asks for a volunteer and everyone else in the ranks take one step backwards! But in the best church communities, everyone offers their services and then there’s no need for anyone to be a square peg in a round hole – there’s enough slack for everyone to find a way in the parish to do what you do best.

Perhaps, in the past, managers have encouraged you to do something about “addressing your weaknesses” but surely it’s better to develop your strengths? We can acquire skills and knowledge, but perform best when these enhance our innate talents – and every single one of us has some set of natural talents. That doesn’t mean just sports or arts – “talents” are anything we’re wired to do well. We are not called to be “well rounded” – God didn’t make us that way, and a ball won’t stay put where it’s meant to be. God made each one of us with a unique set of things that we do do well, and God is calling is, urgently, to use them for the work of Christ – to love our neighbour and to bring everyone on Earth under the Reign of God.

St Paul’s strange advice about not laughing or mourning came from his belief that Christ was about to return and bring the world to an end. We know now that didn’t happen, so we face a different challenge – how do we use the gifts we’ve been given to live “in the world but not of the world”, following Christ? One way of doing that is being sure that when offered a choice of jobs, choose the one which plays to your strengths, not the one which one has most prestige. The happiness of getting higher rank will fade when you become used to it, but the joy of doing something you shine at will be renewed every day you work! And what’s true of the world is also true of the church. If you are already volunteering, are you in the right role? Perhaps there’s something that you and other parishioners can agree you’d be better at doing instead, and there’s no shame in asking for a change. In fact, if it helps you become the best version of yourself, God might be asking you to follow him by making that change right now. Urgently!

With thanks to inspiration from Mgr Bill Hanson, quoted in the Catholic Edition of Living Your Strengths, and other ideas from the authors.

 

Keep on Giving

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, 2018.

The wise men went to a great deal of effort to offer their gifts to the infant King. I wonder what motivated them?

There are all sorts of reasons we might give gifts. It can be a sign of friendship. Or we might be doing so out of duty because the office has organised a “secret Santa”. There again, we might give gifts because we expect to receive something in return. Were the wise men hoping to have places of honour in the court of the new-born King? Or was it a pure act of love? Whatever their motivation, they were willing not only to give expensive gifts but to expend a lot of time and trouble doing so.

The gifts we should think about today are not gifts of money or material things, but the time and talents which God has entrusted to us. The Bible leaves us in no doubt that God has high expectations of what we should do with such gifts. Is God saying: “work as my slaves, or I will punish you”? No! But God is reminding us that actions have consequences. As the philosophy tutor at my seminary once said, “If you consume too much of the blood of Christ, you will get drunk and you should be breathalysed!” If you’ve eaten too many Christmas puddings, you will have gained weight – that’s not a punishment for overeating, it’s just the way the universe works. Our eternal home is heaven, a place of pure self-giving love, and we can only enter heaven when we are a good fit for this – as St John of the Cross once said, “at the evening of  life, we shall be judged on our love”.

The Catholic Church’s job is to invite each one of us to become a saint, and to train us how to live saintly lives. Our church’s task is not to produce nice people, or people with hearts of gold, or people with good intentions; our mission is to produce saints, people of heroic virtue. People like St Teresa of Kolkata, who “give until it hurts” and keep on giving. People like the wise men, willing to go to extreme lengths to offer their gifts to God. The trouble is, we behave more like football fans than saints. Fans are proud of their team, they turn up every weekend, sing their team songs and feel the joy and the pain when their team wins or loses. But they don’t get involved on the pitch. And then what happens? The Catholic Church has been likened to a soccer game, with 22 people running round doing all the work and another 22,000 cheering them on from the stands. But Jesus isn’t looking for fans. He’s looking for followers, people willing to do his work on earth.

In my first parish, I preached many sermons where the message was “get involved”, and one day a parishioner came up to me and said “If you preach one more sermon about ‘getting involved’, I’m leaving this church.” Now he was a man with a disability. Maybe he felt that  he couldn’t do any of the practical things I was inviting people to do. I hope he realised that those of us unable to get involved with our hands can still get involved by our prayers. But those of us who can do more, should do more.

We  have barely enough catechists for our future needs to pass on the Catholic faith to adults and children. Later this month there’s a 2-year course beginning called the “Catholic Certificate in Religious Studies“. It’s a good course for anyone who is a catechist now or wants to be one in future. Could you study now, so you are ready to volunteer in the parish in two years’ time? We would gladly pay your course fees and even help with transport costs if that’s a deal-breaker for you.

More immediately, we need Welcomers. Did you know that most people decide whether they “like” a church based on their first impressions after they have been inside for a couple of minutes? If you regularly arrive at Mass more than 5 minutes early, what’s stopping you taking a turn at smiling at those who follow you through the door and helping hand our hymnbooks or newsletters? It’s a great opportunity for whole families, children can help too alongside parents. In two weeks’ time, I want to meet all our current welcomers after Mass, and I’d like to train some new welcomers at the same time. That could be you.

Today, we re-commission those who do serve in our community. Many of you will stand up in the next few minutes to renew your willingness to serve. I want to thank you for your service – but remember, you are not doing it for me, your parish priest, as a favour. You are doing it for Christ, as a follower, and to help your fellow parishioners become saints. But some of us will not be commissioned today. So I put to you: are you a fan or a follower? If you have a serious illness, or have your hands full with a small child, the parish expects nothing of you except your prayers. For the rest of you, imagine what would happen if you stepped forward to help our parish flourish? How much stronger would we be with your gifts?

There are good works we can do in the local community, as part of organisations which aren’t explicitly Christian. But today, I invite you to focus on your parish – because in your parish, there is no hiding place. No-one else is going to take communion to your sick brothers and sisters. No-one else is here today who can act as a welcomer, usher, collector, reader or minister of Holy Communion at this Holy Mass. If you have the gifts to do any of these things, God expects you to say “yes”. And if you are a visitor here today, and you’re not already volunteering for something in your home parish, I charge you to go to your parish priest next time at your home Mass and ask: “What can I do to help?” Don’t wait to be asked. Those who are truly wise already know that our King deserves our very best.

So arise, shine out, people of St Philip Evans! Become what God has gifted you to be, and you will set Wales on fire!

 

Expectant Joy

A bronze angel appears to a silver image of Mary, kneeling, on a purple backgroundHomily at Christ the King on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B.

Congratulations! You’re pregnant!

I can think of very few words with greater power to turn a life upside down.

A pregnancy is a promise of great changes to come, and a journey from here to there. Usually it begins by noticing that something subtle has changed. Then come the pains of morning sickness. As the child’s body takes form, the mother becomes aware that something is alive – and kicking – within her, but even with ultrasound technology, there will still be a revelation to come when the child is born. Even that’s not the end of the story, for it will take many years for the child to grow to maturity, the parents gradually discovering the person the child will become.

Tomorrow, the whole world will celebrate the birth of a child, and families will be reunited around a meal. Today, it’s only right that we acknowledge that for some of us, this will not be filled with all the joy we would hope for. Some parents – like Elizabeth – will know barrenness, and will have no children to share the celebration. Although childlessness was a stigma in Jewish society of those days, it was not and is not a sign of God’s displeasure. Other parents will celebrate this Christmas conscious that one of their children is missing – lost through miscarriage, or some tragedy later in life – or a child presumed alive but no longer in touch. Most of us will spend Christmas conscious of generations who are no longer with us, but the absence of a child brings a special pain.

If you’re a mum, or a dad, in one of these situations, I want to say something to you – and I’m happy to donate these words to anyone else who’s not sure what the ‘right thing to say’ is.

I’ve never been pregnant, and I’ve never fathered a child. I don’t know how you’re feeling right now. But I do care.

As a priest, I only get to know people’s personal stories when I’m called to the home or the hospital, so my “caring” has to be quite general. But I hope that if any of you here present today know someone personally who needs to hear those words, you have a chance to use them at the right time in the next few days.

When a pregnancy does go to plan, it still involves great uncertainty. When will the mother go into labour? What will the child be like? In a way, the whole Old Testament is a story of expectant waiting for the Christ-child: the prophet Nathan tells Royal David that he is destined to be the father of a line of kings, but will not be the one who gives birth to a Temple for God.

In my first parish, I was once called upon to help a pregnant mother, who had given birth to twins two days before Christmas. Her due date was in January, and although she already had children, she’d planned to buy a second set of the things you need for twins in the post-Christmas sales. But now she had gone into early labour, and the hospital planned to discharge her on Christmas Day. She lived in a rural village with no chance of buying baby equipment in the days after Christmas. So I put out an urgent appeal to my Christmas Eve congregation and they responded gloriously – after my last Mass on Christmas Day I met them in the hospital car park and handed over a carrycot and other useful kit before driving home to my parents. What could be more Christmassy then helping a baby in need?

St Paul was fond of using the image of a pregnant mother. In the letter to the Romans, he used the image of the whole world being ‘in labour’ as we live in an imperfect world awaiting the perfection of heaven, and in today’s extract he gives praise to God because he was alive at the long-prophesied time when God-made-man walked upon the earth.

As followers of Christ, knowing every human being bears his image, we have a solemn duty to welcome every child as we would welcome Christ himself. But that welcome doesn’t just extend to our pro-life stance. It extends to the way we treat every human being, especially the most annoying ones who cross our path!

During the next 24 hours, you’re probably going to attend a Christmas Mass. There will be lots of people there who only come to church once or twice a year. They will do some very annoying things. They will park where you like to park. They will sit in your favourite seat. They might have forgotten what they learned about good manners in church and chew gum or get distracted by their phones. When they do, our job is to make them welcome, for Christ is in them.

Congratulations! You’re pregnant!

You are about to give birth to Christ present in a guest in this or another church! Maybe that guest isn’t yet ready to re-connect with church regularly, and whether Christ brings renewed faith to birth in them depends on how well they experience love from you. So there are still some important gifts you can give this Christmas. You can give your regular seat and parking place to someone who needs to be welcomed. You can give a smile to the person who looks awkward at Christmas worship. You can give guidance with the order of service to the person sitting next to you. And most of all, do it with joy, giving glory to God, it is all part of the way the eternal God wants things to be! 

So remember, if you know someone for whom this Christmas is tinged with sorrow, let them know you’re thinking of them and are willing to listen if they want to talk. And when you meet someone who needs your welcome in the next 24 hours, welcome them as Mary welcomed the Christ Child. I don’t know exactly what or when God will ask you to do, but this I do know: you are pregnant, and your due date is at hand!


Some links useful if you are supporting someone who has experienced a miscarriage:

  • What should you say? Miscarriage Association New Zealand advice
  • Personal account from a woman who’s been there in The Guardian
  • The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity SANDS
  • What if you lose one twin and not the other? The Rainbow Baby signal may help.

Cruse offers advice on how bereavement can impact Christmas.