I’ll Sing a Hymn to Mary

Homily at 3 Churches, for the Solemnity of the Assumption 2019.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord!”

Our Blessed Mother is, first and foremost, a woman of praise. When the Angel Gabriel asked her to be the mother of the Messiah, she praised God with her actions, which humbly said yes. When she visited with Elizabeth, and was honoured as the “mother of the Lord”, her instinct was neither to reject the honour given her, nor to luxuriate in it, but to give glory to God. So today, I think we must ask ourselves two complementary questions. “How can I give honour to Mary? And how can I give glory to God?”

Pope Francis recently wrote a letter to the world’s priests, and he included these words:

How can we speak about gratitude and encouragement without looking to Mary? She, the woman whose heart was pierced, teaches us the praise capable of lifting our gaze to the future and restoring hope to the present. Her entire life was contained in her song of praise. We too are called to sing that song as a promise of future fulfilment.

Mary’s song is a song in honour of God. Sometimes we sing Mary songs at Sunday Mass – but not too often, and that’s appropriate. What are we doing at Mass? We’re giving thanks to God the Father by offering him the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of his beloved Son. Nothing could please Our Father more – and nothing could please our Blessed Mother more, either. St John XXIII is widely quoted as having said, “The Madonna is not pleased when she is put above her son!”

When we do sing to honour Mary, what do we sing? As I Kneel Before You is an act of entrusting our lives to Mary, that she may present us to God. Hail Mary – Gentle Woman takes the familiar Hail Mary prayer and adds affectionate titles, allowing us to come alongside Elizabeth in calling Mary blessed among all women. There are many verses to Immaculate Mary, Our Hearts are On Firebut most of them express prayers for ourselves and for souls in need, explicitly or implicitly commending these intentions to Mary’s own prayers.

You might be familiar with the Latin Salve Regina which asks Mary to walk with us in times of sorrow and lead us to Jesus. Bring Flowers of the Rarest only really makes sense when we sing it May and place a crown of flowers upon an image of our Blessed Mother. I’ll sing a Hymn To Mary only just manages to do what the first line suggests – it’s much more about declaring who Mary is than about asking her for help (and in this case, help to sing a song about her!)

Whenever we sing to Mary, or pray to her, we are walking a tightrope between going too far and ignoring her. Mary has no power of her own. When we pray to her it’s because we trust her to bring our needs perfectly before the throne of God. When we sing to her, we are seeking to honour her without offering the kind of worship which belongs to God alone. Other Christians might ask why we bother to do this at all, but the answer is in today’s Gospel: “All generations will call me blessed,” says Mary. It’s balanced that every Sunday we worship the Father by offering the Body of Jesus, and once a year we all come together to honour Mary.

Some of us might feel more comfortable entrusting our prayers to Our Lady than to Our Lord or Our Father, and that’s OK – as long as, if we’re in the habit of “asking Mary for things”, we remember that she can only give us what she has received from God. But since God has filled her with the fullness of all grace, what she has to share with us is not inconsiderable! We can also talk to Mary, as a child might talk to its mother, and we can hear Pope Francis again, this time rembering how Our Lady appeared to St Juan Diego at Guadalupe:

Whenever I visit a Marian shrine, I like to spend time looking at the Blessed Mother and letting her look at me. I pray for a childlike trust, the trust of the poor and simple who know that their mother is there, and that they have a place in her heart. And in looking at her, to hear once more, like the Indian Juan Diego: “My youngest son, what is the matter? Do not let it disturb your heart. Am I not here, I who have the honour to be your mother?”

We can also learn much by thinking about Mary as a role model. She was an unmarried mother; a Palestinian refugee in Africa; a confident mother at the Wedding at Cana; a strong woman at the foot of the Cross. Pope Francis reminds us:

To contemplate Mary is “to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness. In her, we see that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong, who need not treat others poorly in order to feel important themselves”.

But who are the weak and who are the strong? In her Magnificat, Mary sings of a God who casts down the mighty and lifts up the lowly. St Paul once said that God’s power was made perfect in his weakness; when he was weak, then he was strong. God’s ways, Mary’s ways, are not the ways of the world. When we are strong, let us ask Our Blessed Mother for the grace to yield to God. When we are weak, let us ask her to obtain for us what we need. I’ll give the last words to a traditional hymn:

O bless us, dear Lady,
With blessings from heaven,
And to our petitions
Let answer be given.
Ave, Ave, Ave Maria!
Ave, Ave Maria!


The Things We Haven’t Done

Homily at 3 Churches, for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

One morning, at the start of class, a schoolgirl spoke to her teacher.

Please Sir, can I ask you something? Should a person be punished for something they haven’t done?

“Of course not,” replied the teacher, “No-one should be punished for something they haven’t done.”

“That’s good!” said the girl. “Please Sir, I haven’t done my homework!”

Today’s Gospel starts with a lovely picture of Jesus serving his friends. But then St Peter asks “is this for us or for everyone?” He’s probably not expecting what happens next – Jesus paints a surprising picture of how God treats his “servants”. For those who claim to be disciples, a higher standard is expected. The wicked servant who abuses his master’s trust is dismissed – that’s an image of Hell. The lazy servant who did know what the master expected receives many strokes of the lash – that’s an image of Purgatory. More surprisingly, the one who didn’t know what the master expected, but failed to deliver, is punished. Only lightly, but still punished – by the master who represents God!

Does this mean we’re dealing with an unreasonable God who expects results and deals with us unjustly? No. But there are two things we must remember to avoid reading this parable the wrong way.

The first thing is that the servants were servants. They knew they had a Master. So they knew that something was going be expected of them. The fault of the third servant is that he didn’t try to find out what he should have been doing. This is not a parable for people who’ve never heard of Jesus. This is a parable for disciples – members of the Church who claim they want to follow Jesus and serve God Our Father!

The second important thing is that while human beings judge the outward appearance, God judges the heart. We are judged not on our results but on our choices. Let me offer an example: we know that one of the Ten Commandments requires us to keep the Lord’s Day holy. Mother Church takes that and makes an Obligation, saying we must attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, on pain of serious sin. Now, suppose you wake up on Sunday morning and have flu – or find yourself in sole care of a child who is ill in bed. You want to go to Mass. You feel bad about not being able to go to Mass. In these circumstances, is it possible for you to choose to come to Mass? No. So if that happens, please don’t come to confession because you feel bad about not coming to Mass. Confession is about saying “I made a bad choice and next time that happens I’ll make a better choice” – we call that ‘a firm purpose of amendment’. The sign you need to come to confession is that you can put into words what that better choice would have been. If your body has flu, you have no choice. If you have to care for a sick child at home, you have no choice. When you have no choice, what you have are regrets, not sins. So take your sins to confession but take your regrets straight to God in prayer.

At the end of our lives, we will meet Jesus as our judge. We will see clearly what was expected of us. I suspect that what the Bible calls the “punishment” for the servant who didn’t know what was expected will be the firey embarrassment we experience at realising we have let down our beloved Lord in the task he has chosen specially for each one of us. It’s because of this that we have the practice in the church called an “examination of conscience”. This is when we look at ourselves and ask whether we’ve been doing what our master expects. Now it’s easy to make a list of bad behaviour we should avoid – we can tick off a list of “Thou Shalt Nots” to help with that. Today’s Gospel, however, requires something more challenging: an examination of the good deeds which our Master does expect.

Now, none of us can do everything. We can’t all run a Foodbank, visit 50 housebound parishioners every week, take charge of a pack of Scouts, work overtime so a colleague can get home to the kids and spend 8 nights a week at home with our beloved husband or wife. So it’s important to spend time praying about what good deeds God expects each one of us to do. The key is in the gifts and talents God has already entrusted to us – they are given to us to make the world a better place. We will be most effective when we do those things we are called and gifted to do. This is why, following our big diocesan conference in June, our priests and lay leaders in the diocese are examining a process named “Called and Gifted” which could help us do just this. But it would be premature of me to say more before final plans are made.

At this time of year, as we look forward to the “back to school” season, those of us who are parents or grandparents might face a change in mix of caring duties and gaps in our schedule in a typical week. It’s a good time to ask where we can use of our gifts and talents in the year to come.

There is one thing that only we can do – we who worship in the Catholic Church in this place. We are ambassadors for Christ. We can’t expect anyone else promote this parish. It is our calling to invite the people we meet to ask whether they believe Jesus rose from the dead, and whether it’s possible to meet Jesus through Holy Mass. Today’s Second Reading reminds us that Abraham set out to follow God’s call. The First Reading recalls the first Passover, when the faithful Jews were saved from the angel of death. God protects his faithful people, but expects much from his servants – and it’s our business to find out what God wants us to do.

None of us can do everything, but all of us are expected to use the gifts we’ve been given to do something. The Master is calling us. If we want our entry into heaven to be pure joy and free from punishment, the first step is to pray this Dangerous Prayer – “Here I am Lord, use me as you will!” Remember, he doesn’t want to punish you – but you do have to do your homework!

Leaving a Legacy

Homily at 3 Churches, for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Imagine, for a moment, that you have four grown-up daughters.

  • Angela never married, and has spent the last 20 years looking after you in your own home.
  • Bridie married a teacher, but isn’t able to have any children.
  • Christine married a very wealthy businessman, who is like another son to you. They have two children.
  • Deborah defied your wishes and married a man with a criminal record who you thought was totally unsuitable. They have four children.

Now, it’s time to write your will. What do you do? Deborah’s family has the greatest needs: the children are nearly old enough for university. Christine’s children have all the money they need, but if you leave nothing to them, that will look mean. If you leave the house to Angela, there won’t be much money to donate to the rest of the family – but if you sell the house to give a share to each daughter or a share to each grandchild, where will Angela live?

When it comes to questions of inheritance, our Old Testament lesson has nailed it. You, the person who earned the wealth, will one day die, so inevitably what you now have will go to someone who hasn’t earned it. That’s why it’s a big mistake to ask whether an inheritance is fair. Inheritances are always generous. So when you’re on the other side of things – benefitting, or being left out, from someone else’s will – the only real complaint you can make is that the will-maker was not as generous towards you as you hoped. Now I’ll admit that it’s certainly unfair if someone makes you a verbal promise and doesn’t follow up by writing that into their will – but that’s about breaking their word, which is a different moral issue altogether.

In the twelve years I’ve been a priest, I’ve had innumerable conversations with parishioners whose lives have been ruined by disputes about inheritance. They have expected to receive a certain amount in a will, but either they were left less than they hoped for, or another family member failed to hand over what they ought to have done, or in the absence of written instructions, the person didn’t inherit what they believed they were entitled to.

Now I’m the first to recognise that when you expect to inherit something, it’s easy to daydream. My parents own a house, and when the time comes, its value will probably be split between my brother and myself. Since I don’t have a mortgage, I can imagine paying for a round-the-world holiday, or buying a brand-new car, or sponsoring some expensive charitable project. Yet maybe that won’t happen. Maybe between now and then, the house will have to be sold to pay for care home fees – or a survey might find an old mineshaft under its foundations and make it worthless. So I can dream, but I would be foolish to plan a future based on something I might never receive.

Even Jesus was reluctant to get involved in a property dispute. “Who appointed me your judge?” he asks. In fact, one day Jesus will judge us, because the God He calls Father has appointed him judge over all humanity. But he will judge us on the quality of our generous giving and our goodwill in receiving what is always a pure gift.

Are you angry with a deceased relative for not including you in their will? Let it go. It was never your money in the first place. Pray for their soul!

Are you angry with a living relative for not sharing a portion of their inheritance with you? Let it go. They have had their reward already. Pray for their conversion!

Are you angry because the executor of a will is being slow to give you your inheritance? Let it go. God will allow your portion to come to you at a time when you’ll need it. Love and bless your adversary!

There again, perhaps you’re arguing with other family members because you’ve benefitted the most from someone else’s will. If so, you’ve received an undeserved gift. How much of that gift will you share with your extended family? The Lord who said “Freely you have received, freely give” is also warning you that no amount of money will give you security – the Christian paradox is that only through giving can we truly receive what we need.

Today is also a good day to ask yourself: Have I made a will? If so, does it need to be updated?

Wills are important. It’s only by making a will that you can ensure that your property is used in the way you wish after your death. You don’t need to use a lawyer to write your will, but it’s probably a good idea to do so if there’s a house or land involved. The cheapest way to access a lawyer is to wait until November and find one who is part of the WillAid initiative – instead of paying a legal fee, you make a donation* to one of nine nominated charities. There are two Catholic charities in the mix – the Scottish and Irish counterparts of CAFOD.

If you’re making or updating a will, you might consider leaving a legacy to the Catholic Church. Because the parishes of “3 Churches” are part of a wider charity, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cardiff Trust, it’s important to use the right wording. Saying “I leave the money to the Catholic Church” is too vague, and saying “I leave it to Parish X” is a problem because Parish X isn’t a charity on its own. The Treasurer’s Office can advise you of the right wording, if you need it.

There is no one right answer to the puzzle I set at the start of this sermon, because there are different definitions of “fair”. Is it fair to split everything 4 ways among the daughters? Is it fair to give a double-share to Christine and a quadruple-share to Deborah because of the number of grandchildren?* It would certainly seem unfair to make Angela homeless, but there are ways of leaving property “in trust” so its value can be shared out later. One thing which is clearly unfair is not updating a will when the circumstances it was based on have changed. Our Lord is not going to apportion your will, but he will judge you on the thoughtfulness and generosity with which you settle your affairs. The next step is up to you!

In one of the Cardiff churches where I preached this sermon, a Cardiff solicitor in the congregation pointed out afterwards that English Law would by default assume equal shares to each daughter but takes no account of grandchildren because “they are the children’s responsibility”; his practical experience suggests that leaving grandchildren more than a token amount tends to cause conflict. I hasten to add that nothing in this blog should be taken as formal legal advice! The same lawyer also noted that although there are “suggested donations” associated with WillAid you are not actually obliged to pay a penny to benefit from the service.

Testing Times

Homily at Cardiff’s “3 Churches” for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

About once year I have a recurring anxiety dream. I’m back in seminary – priest training college – sitting my exams. Then I wake up and realise – phew – I’ve already been ordained, and it’s OK, I’ve passed the test to become a priest.

Few of us like being put to the test. But tests are important. Just this week one friend of mine passed her basic training to ride a motorcycle on a public road, and another, who is Spanish, passed his English Literacy test to work in a British school. I don’t think any of us would want our children taught by someone who doesn’t speak English well, and still less to encounter an untested rider on the highway. Tests force us to focus and to perform better.

In today’s Gospel, we hear Our Lord teaching us a very familiar prayer, but in unfamiliar language. Both St Luke – whose words we heard today – and St Matthew, recall how the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Luke gives us a shorter version, but both Gospels, after asking forgiveness, say “do not put us to the test”. At least, that’s what they say in the English text of the Bible we use for our Mass readings.*

What did Jesus actually say to his disciples? Most likely he taught them in Aramaic, the later version of Hebrew spoken in Roman times. But the Gospels got written in Greek, and we have identical words in the earliest copies of Matthew and Luke. Three hundred years later, when the offical Latin Bible was written, those words were translated again, as “ne nos inducas in tentationem” – and if you know the Lord’s Prayer, or Pater Noster, in Latin, those words will still sound familiar today. Translations of the Bible as far back as the 14th century borrowed one of those Latin words into English as “temptation”.

Today, whenever we use the word “temptation”, it always has the sense of inviting someone to break a rule, do something unhealthy or commit a sin. You can even get a box of chocolates called Temptations! But that’s because the word has become more specialised over the centuries. The Latin word, and “temptation” when it first became an English word, could mean any kind of trial or test – a test of ability, a test of strength, or a test of moral character. Indeed, almost any kind of test will reveal something about our virtues and vices!

“Pray not to be put to the test.” When Jesus took Peter, James and John to the Garden of Gethsemane, he spoke to them in very similar words. Then they were both tested and tempted. Our Lord was arrested. Would they use violence? Jesus had to tell Peter to put away his sword. Would they deny following Jesus? Three times, before the cock crew, Simon Peter had sworn “I do not know the man!” Most of the apostles fled Calvary, leaving only Our Lady and St John the Beloved at the foot of the cross. Would they believe his prophecies that he would rise from the dead? The joyful words of St Mary Magdalen were scorned at first before the Risen Lord confirmed the truth to his sorely tested disciples.

So when you pray, ask your Father in heaven… well, what exactly? Are we asking Him not to tempt us to sin? Or not to test us in ways where our own weaknesses, with or without help from the Devil, are likely to lead us to sin? At the end of 2017, Pope Francis gave a media interview where he stressed that it is not God, but the Enemy, who tempts us to do evil. Since then, you may have seen irate internet posts from Protestant leaders attacking the Pope for “changing the words of Jesus”.

Of course the Pope isn’t seeking to change anything Our Lord said – he’s only asking how we can best express that in our own everyday language. The Bible text we read at Mass is from a 20th Century translation. “Do not put us to the test” is the best way to put Our Lord’s words into modern English. But when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we aren’t praying in modern English, we’re praying in words that have been largely unchanged for centuries. People don’t like being asked to unlearn old familiar prayers – I’m sure we didn’t when the Missal was updated a decade ago – and “lead us not into temptation” are some of the best known words in the English language.

If we turn to another part of the Bible, the Letter of St James, we read that “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does God tempt anyone.” But God certainly does test his faithful people. In today’s first reading, God has sent angels to warn Abraham about the destruction of Sodom. Abraham passes this test by asking God to have mercy even if there are 10 good souls in the town – but there aren’t. The whole of the Bible is about God testing human beings. Will Adam and Eve touch the forbidden tree? Will Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac? Will Moses tell Pharaoh “Let God’s people go?” Will Jonah prophesy to Nineveh? Will Mary say yes to Gabriel? Will Jesus flee from the Garden of Gethsemane? Will you and I use the talents God has entrusted to us to help needy people and grow God’s church?

St Paul tells us clearly that at the end our lives, our works will be tested. He also consoles us by assuring us that God will not test us more than we can bear, and that God will cause all things to work out for good for those who love Jesus. So we are left with this mystery. Our Father in heaven will test us, but also calls us to “pray not to be put to the test”. In our age we may be tested by being required to produce a DBS certificate to prove our good character, or asked to defend something Pope Francis has said. So pray not to be put to the test. But when you are tested – and you will be – pray for God to help you to pass the test with integrity. If you should fail, remember the Lord’s Prayer includes a petition for forgiveness, too!

* Generally on this blog I link to the United States lectionary for the full readings because it provides a stable link that still works years later. However, the translation there this week says “Do not subject us to the final test!” (Luke 11:4 NAB and Matthew 6:13 NAB.) For other in-blog Bible references I tend to use Oremus NRSV Anglicised which offers “Do not bring us to the time of trial!” (Luke 11:4 NRSV-A and Matthew 6:13 NRSV-A). The Lectionary used by most British Catholic Churches uses the Jerusalem Bible (not to be confused with the New Jerusalem Bible) which renders this passage as “Do not put us to the test”.

Further reflections: In the length of a sermon, there is no time to ponder the other part of Our Lord’s phrasing, “ne inducas”, “do not induce / draw towards us / draw us towards” temptation. Part of the controversy about Pope Francis’ comments in 2017 is around his choice of “do not allow us to fall into temptation”, which reflects the common usage he is familiar with in Spanish – “no nos dejes caer en la tentacion”. The Pope’s favoured words imply “Dear God, please make an intervention here to prevent me being tested, or to prevent me failing if I am tested.” Our traditional language implies “Dear God, if you were planning on leading me into a situation where I will be tempted, please change your mind.” Behind this is a complex question of how exactly God intervenes in the day-to-day workings of the world. God permits human beings the freedom to choose sinfully, so everything which occurs is according to the “permissive will of God”. Should God work a miracle or communicate a desire clearly to a particular person, these would be very specific enactments of God’s active will. But what exactly am I expecting God to do, within my mind or in the wider world, to make me less likely to be tested or tempted today? I don’t know – but I do know Jesus felt it was important that I ask this of my Father every day!

Missiondom Tour 2019

Sherry Weddell made a speaking tour of England & Wales 10-20 June 2019. This is a brief digest of the teaching, which presupposes you are familiar with Sherry Weddell’s book Forming Intentional Disciples. The book sets out a framework for understanding how believers pass through the thresholds of (1) Trust, (2) passive Curiosity, (3) Openness to change, (4) active Seeking and (5) Intentional Discipleship.

The State of the Church Today

We no longer live in a culture of “Christendom”. Even the young people born in “Catholic” families are mostly growing up with such a weak exposure to Catholicism they are effectively unchurched rather than lapsed. And in fact it’s historically rare for Catholics to have been formed by the culture (“Christendom”) rather than to have to be evangelised anew. “Generation Z” – the young people born between 1998 and 2016 – typically don’t believe in God, never pray, and don’t attend any kind of worship service. The 2015 “Talking Jesus” survey in England showed that 53% of adults don’t believe in the Resurrection of Jesus and only 21% do believe he was God in human form. On the other hand, the number of adults who call themselves atheists have dropped from 38% in 2016 to 33% in 2018 (Yougov survey 2018).

In a typical parish, we can expect 90-95% of the worshipping parishioners have not moved beyond Trust or passive Curiosity. Even highly engaged (“core”) parishioners who get involved with parish projects are often engaging out of a sense of commitment to the local community or the church institution rather than commitment to Christ. All disciples are highly engaged, but engagement does not prove discipleship. Worse, it’s very likely that someone who has been engaged for a long time but never moved beyond curiosity has become ‘stuck’ in their spiritual journey; and those who are still at early thresholds may become annoyed and vocal when their parish is challenged to grow deeper. What’s the typical mentality of a Massgoer? “We’re all going to heaven because we’re good people, but none of us are going to be ‘saints’ because it would be far too proud to aspire to that.” This shows a total misunderstanding of salvation!

So we recognise there are three distinct journeys which people can make which don’t synchronise with each other automatically: progress through the sacraments of initiation, active involvement in the church community, and the interior journey through the thresholds of discipleship. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognises that there is the “first conversion” (1427) by which we become disciples and then the ongoing or “second” conversion (1428) which takes place once we are disciples and find our apostolate (the “missionary discipleship” which Pope Francis speaks of). The Church recognises (Catechesi Tradendae 19) that when we set out to catechise people we have to face the reality that many have not yet been evangelised.

We have a retention problem. We know that we haemorrhage young people after baptism and first communion. Even many of those who join the church through RCIA cease practicing in the year following their baptism or reception. Why do the sacraments not bear fruit? Catechism 1131 reminds us that the sacraments bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions. This teaching is expanded in Chapter 6 of Trent’s Decree on Justification and reinforced by St Thomas Aquinas (Commentary on John 6:976 & Summa Theologica III q69 a8).

A Canadian study of young Christians who stay (Hemmorhaging Faith 2012) indicates that young people who remain active in church have experienced God’s presence and seen prayers answered; live in Christian communities where they feel able to wrestle with real spiritual questions including the Gospel story; and have lived experience of adult communities living out Christian faith in authentic ways.

The Work of Proclamation

We pour great efforts into catechising children and adults. But before we can do that fruitfully, we have to foster openness and then proclaim the Gospel.

A key task of clergy (an aspect of the ministry of ‘governance’ alongside the Word and the Sacraments), is to raise up “intentional disciples” in our parishes – souls who are confident in their identity as followers of Jesus Christ. Most of the clerical work will be engaging with the “near field” of churchgoers, while giving the laity the tools they need to engage with the “far field” of those who have left church or never engaged with church in the first place.

For many of our churchgoers, their “relationship with the church”, or even their “relationship with a deceased relative” IS their relationship with God. They can be helped by hearing testimonies from people who do have a relationship with God, and being encouraged to pray the Prayer of Openness – “God, if you are there, show yourself to me!”

How do we share the basic Gospel message? Gen Z young adults are so disconnected from our Christian heritage that even Alpha may make too many assumptions about their cultural background! But they do believe they are in charge of their own lives, at least until they meet with some disaster! (In the light of Sherry’s teaching and suggested resources, I have updated my Guide for Evangelisers.)

One cycle of Alpha or Discovering Christ is probably not enough to move a participant from Trust to Intentional Discipleship. But sustained work with a person can achieve this in around two years. When people reach the stage of Openness, supporting them with prayer is crucial; and we must recognise they are vulnerable to falling back, or hiding within a community which doesn’t seem to affirm their growth. Growing as far as Openness can be scary in a community which is mostly still at Trust!

When someone is ready, an exercise like one-on-one renewal of baptismal promises or the physical symbolic action of dropping a net can be helpful.

Disciples bear fruit – and this grows out of a living relationship with God. When members of the church become intentional disciples, they become active as worshippers and volunteers, and generous givers. Some will become lay leaders pioneering new ministries. Programmes such as the Siena Institute’s Called & Gifted allow the gifts (charisms) of disciples to be discerned and affirmed. From July 2019, the teaching element of this programme will be accessible via online videos.

You can only guide others to grow as far as the threshold you have reached yourself. People who are still at Trust do have a role in evangelisation teams – they might be the most sensitive to hospitality issues, for instance, and have a role in the welcoming team. But they are not disciplers.

“Charismatic Renewal” fits within the wider picture of what Sherry teaches about. She speaks of how to encourage people to develop a conscious relationship with God. For some souls, this may crystallise in a “baptism in the Spirit” experience but others who have clearly moved into relationship with God would not choose to use that language or identify a particular experience. Similarly, the charisms identified though Called & Gifted do include extraordinary gifts such as healing or praying in tongues, but also include lifestyle charisms (e.g. celibacy, voluntary poverty) and charisms where God has simply perfected natural gifts (e.g. music, writing, administration).

There are five specific practical steps we can take to become more effective at making disciples.

  1. In pastoral conversations, be attentive to the person’s relationship with God.

Whenever you engage in an appropriate conversation, try to tease out what the person’s understanding is of “God” – even if they’ve been to a Catholic school, that’s no guarantee. For many, “God” is just a label for “church stuff”. It’s easy for a member of a group to ignore information which has been “broadcast” to the whole audience. A one-to-one conversation forces the listener to engage – and often that engagement is enough to get the person thinking afresh about who God really is. Two key questions to ask are:

  • “Tell me the story of where God is in your life!” (or, for someone who has shared a messy life situation, “Where is God in this for you?”)
  • “If you could ask God one question which he would answer for you right now, what would it be?”

Such “threshold conversations” can be very revealing about where a person is at, and can themselves provoke the kind of reflection that helps a person pass through towards the next threshold. Parishioners who wish to learn how to have these kinds of conversations can benefit from Ananias Training. Good listening does not seek to force the speaker into a conclusion but listens without judgment. Recent research from Barna (Reviving Evangelism, 2019) shows that the more a person experiences positive conversations about faith, the more open they will be to talking about faith.

Never accept a “label” without enquiring what it means. Even people who initially call themselves atheist or agnostic might admit to praying or being open to the possibility of some version of God! Try answering questions with questions – most people are only two “whys” from being forced to think about why they stand where they stand.

  1. Encourage people to foster their relationship with God.

Ultimately, by talking about the possibility of a relationship with God, you are fostering the understanding that God is a loving person and it is possible to have a relationship with God.

You can also encourage people to be open to a relationship with God by:

  • Praying the Prayer of Openness – “God, if you are there, show yourself to me!”
  • Trying lectio divina.
  • Trying Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (but offer a simple orientation to someone who isn’t familiar with it).
  • Seeking the presence of God in serving those in need.
  • Practicing the “Presence of God” (Brother Lawrence)
  • Talking to God in your own words.

The Siena Institute has a lectio resource for Advent 2019 available.

  1. Create a culture in your parish where it is normal to talk about Jesus.

Research shows that most people have to hear the story of who Jesus is and what He did for us many times before they realise how important this is. This can be communicated through preaching, through personal testimonies shared at the end of Mass, and through testimonies and lectio divina (with participants sharing their reflections with each other) becoming a normal part of all group activities (committees, catechetical groups, etc.) in your parish. The purpose is not only to receive the reflections shared during lectio but to embed the culture of it being normal to speak about prayer, faith and Jesus Christ.

Keep telling the story of the saving death of Jesus, alongside personal testimony of how Jesus touches lives today and draws people into relationship with himself. These don’t have to be extraordinary “Damascus Road” testimonies – rather, they should illustrate what it’s like to have an ordinary prayer life. Also remind people that He lives in the Tabernacle of every Catholic Church! And keep sharing the Great Story and personal testimonies wherever there’s an opportunity – videos on the parish website, in one-to-one conversations, at children’s and adult groups – in short, at every possible opportunity.

You can also consider running one of several courses in your parish which provide a basic introduction to the person of Jesus. In the light of Sherry’s teaching and suggested resources, I have updated my Guide for Evangelisers. Remember that one size will not fit all parishioners, and a diverse range of methods of presenting the Gospel will be best.

  1. Ensure there is intercessory prayer for the flourishing of your parish.

Intercession is not the same thing as adoration – although it can be done in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed. You will probably have a handful of parishioners who have a particular gift for intercession – when they start to pray, a topic will come clearly to mind, or they will have a clear idea on how to pray at length about a topic you propose. How will you identify these people? If you schedule a special time of prayer to pray for the needs of the parish, they will be the main people who turn up. Develop them as a group of intercessors – and importantly, when you see answers to their prayers, feed this back to encourage them. You can also use those whose life-circumstances mean that prayer is their only way to contribute (your sick and housebound) – but don’t neglect the healthy parishioners who have a special gift for praying in this way!

  1. Identify and use the charisms of every member of your parish.

Parishioners will be happy and fulfilled when they are using the gifts God has given them to further the work of the Church – though they may need reassurance that Christian humility doesn’t require us to shun tasks we get praised for! Sherry’s organisation offers a Called & Gifted programme which helps people to identify their God-given gifts (charisms), and this can be accessed in three ways:

  • An individual goes through the process on-line;
  • A parish streams the teaching videos;
  • A parish runs live talks.

When the programme is to be run at parish level, the parish will first need to train some suitable people who will conduct the one-to-one interviews with participants. These interviews include threshold conversations which help identify how far parishioners have grown along the path to discipleship.

Final Thoughts

We need hope. Do we expect that people will become committed disciples? Do we write off good news stories as “American cheerfulness” or the fruit of “North American resources”? One US parish which worked hard on promoting discipleship now has 40% of its Massgoers in ministry, estimates 25% are now Intentional Disciples, and its level of financial giving has gone through the roof. There is no reason to believe this cannot happen in the UK!

You can join the international Forming Intentional Disciples Forum on Facebook which can be searched for all sorts of useful conversation threads on evangelising in different circumstances.

There is also a UK Forum, but this is much less active.

For the avoidance of doubt, the article above is not Sherry’s words but my digest of them. Fr Gareth Leyshon (CatholicPreacher)

D Day

Homily at the Sion Community D-Weekend for Pentecost Sunday, 2019.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? They would need to be brave and courageous…

This week, many nations have been remembering the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. “D” stood for Decision – the Decision to send a mighty army through the beaches of France to overthrow the Nazi evil which had overtaken the heart of Europe. Most of the warriors who took part were young people – some hiding their true age so they could fight, though not yet deemed ‘adults’. Not only men died that day – women among the nursing corps also lost their lives. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to do it – the moral case to oppose the Nazis was overwhelming.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – within a month, a million allied warriors had landed in Normandy.
  3. They received signs of encouragement, from the words of Winston Churchill to the outrageous leadership of a bagpiper!

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal…

On the Day of Pentecost around AD 33, a group of young people were waiting in an Upper Room, the same room where Jesus had celebrated the Last Supper. It’s probable that the fishermen called by Jesus – Peter, Andrew, James and John – were in their twenties or possibly even teenagers. In today’s Gospel, we heard how Jesus appeared to them on Easter Sunday, wished them peace, and commanded them to receive the Holy Spirit. St Luke tells us how, 40 days after Easter, Jesus said goodbye – he would no longer be appearing regularly to his chosen followers – but told them to wait in Jersualem until they received power from God. In our first reading, from Acts, we learn that after 9 days of continuous prayer, the promised power came in the form of a mighty wind and tongues of fire. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young disciples knew they HAD to do it – Jesus their master had given them a command.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – not only the eleven apostles chosen by Jesus, but Mary and the other women who supported them, and very soon, the hundreds who responded and became baptised.
  3. They received signs of encouragement, because God’s power brought healings and words which touched lives.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? They would need to be brave and courageous…

Joshua’s army had been given its instructions. For seven days they were to march around Jericho; on the seventh day they should march seven times with the Ark of God’s Presence and then have their priests blow trumpets. No doubt the warriors and bearers of the Ark would have been young people. Joshua wasn’t so young any more, but God had chosen him because when he was a young man, sent to spy in the Promised Land, he had told Moses that although the land was full of formidable enemies, it would be easy to conquer with God’s help. Where most of the spies saw human problems, Joshua saw God’s solutions. Since then, he’d had to wait 40 years to see the children of Israel enter the Promised Land. But now it was time. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to do it – God’s power had led them to this moment.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – they were twelve tribes.
  3. They received signs of encouragement: Joshua had seen God’s power part the Egyptian Sea and the Jordan River, provide manna from heaven, and speak to Moses face-to-face.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal…

On the Day of Pentecost in 2019, a group of young people were gathered in Brentwood. They had heard a message that “life with God is life in colour”. Some of them had personally experienced God touch their lives, with a deep peace that no human being can give. A few of them had even experienced what the Apostles had also known following the first Pentecost – they had prayed in tongues, received words of prophecy from God. But others among them doubted. And many wondered what their mission was to be.

For Joshua and for the D-Day troops, they had clear missions ahead of them. Joshua was to capture the city of Jericho and secure the Promised Land. The warriors of D-Day were to repel the Nazi troops and restore freedom to the nations of Europe. For the young people at the first Pentecost, their mission briefing was more general – they were to invite everyone in the world to become a follower of Jesus Christ – to become a Disciple.

Now what must you do to be a Disciple? We read in the same chapter of Acts that those who said “Yes” on the Day of Pentecost did four things. They were faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to meeting together to support one another, to Holy Communion and to prayer.

If you want to know the Teaching of the Apostles, you will need to read the whole New Testament of the Bible. But I can sum it up for you briefly. Deal with your anger and live in peace with one another. Protect and cherish human life from conception to natural death. Forgive everyone, even before they ask. Never sleep with another person until you are part of a marriage blessed by God. And never, ever, say something is a rule while doing the opposite.

This teaching will stir up questions in your hearts. Part of what Jesus taught is quite acceptable to the world around us. Who can argue with helping people in need and keeping our promises? But other things will be out of step with today’s world. Some of you will be thinking “Yes! It feels right to go to Mass on Sunday, protect human life in the womb, and wait until marriage, but I don’t quite understand why.” Ask the questions! It’s OK to want to know more, and a good place to start is a book called YouCat.

Others among you will feel angry at some of these ideas. Can’t the old-fashioned Catholic Church get with the times? Well, no, we can’t. Our job is to do what we’ve done for 2000 years, to pass on the teaching of Jesus – and Jesus doesn’t change his mind. But if you’re angry, good! Talk about it with someone. Maybe it’s because following Jesus means you’ll have to disagree with some members of your family or close friends. That’s why Jesus wants to fill us with His Holy Spirit, to be brave and courageous. But if you’re like the milkshake with the film on top*, you’re not going to be an awesome milkshake…

Maybe all of this feels too much for you. You can see that other people on the D-Weekend have had a good time or enjoy the singing and praying. So I say to you: don’t feel pressured into doing anything you don’t want to do. But do ask some basic questions. Do you believe that something dramatic happened on that first Day of Pentecost? That people who knew Jesus received power to heal people and change lives for the better? That Jesus, uniquely among religious leaders, rose from the dead? And do these questions matter?

On the Day of Pentecost in 2019, a group of young people were gathered in Brentwood. They had heard a message that “life with God is life in colour”. Some of them had personally experienced God touch their lives, with a deep peace that no human being can give. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to take the next step – God was real, and was inviting them.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – they were four tribes, able to keep in touch through Sion Community and through social media.
  3. They received signs of encouragement: some of the young people had spoken publicly about how God had touched their lives.

God had a purpose for each of these young people. They couldn’t go until they got the signal – and God will give that in different ways, to do different tasks, when each young person is ready. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? It was D-Day. Decision Day. Disciple Day. They would need to be brave and courageous… but like Joshua, like the Apostles, if they made the right decision, God’s Holy Spirit would be with them. I wonder what decision they are going to make?

*During the weekend, an illustration was used with three glasses of milk. Film on top (no baptism – no openness to the Holy Spirit) – no milkshake. Powder in but not stirred? (Just baptised and confirmed, not interested.) Lumpy milkshake. Powder in and stirred (stir up the gifts of the Spirit given to you) – awesome milkshake.

Photo credits: D-DayPentecostJoshua.

I Am Bread

“I was praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament exposed for adoration, and I came forward to kiss the body of Christ. As I did so, I became bread. Then I was broken and shared for others.”

Recently, a member of my community shared this ‘picture’, a mental image which came during prayer – and it got me thinking. What would it be like, to actually become bread? I would like to offer you a meditation.

You, by virtue of your baptism, are a member of the Body of Christ. Every consecrated Host is also the Body of Christ. We usually think of the Blessed Sacrament as Christ himself, rather than the multitude of saints who make up his body; but given that Jesus said ‘This is My Body’ at the Last Supper, we cannot confine our understanding to the Real Presence making present the Head alone.

What, then, if you became a single consecrated host? And for the purpose of our meditation, let’s suppose that you become a large host which has been consecrated for Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. This host is truly you – let’s say that the spirit which inhabits your body has left your body and now inhabits this circular wafer of wheaten bread. Let’s also imagine that your spirit has the same properties which we suppose it will have in heaven, awaiting the resurrection when all spirits are given renewed bodies – you will be conscious, you will be able to communicate mentally with God (at least by ‘sending’ prayers), and you will in some degree be aware of your surroundings.

You are bread. You find yourself lying on a cold golden dish. You are perfectly round, perfectly flat – a pure geometrical form. And as bread, you can do nothing. You cannot move. You cannot speak. Perhaps you are freshly baked – you become aware that a tiny portion of your substance is wafting away into the air, producing a beautiful fragrance; but this will quickly fade. As days go by, you will dry out and become a little stale; perhaps you will experience this as a growing tautness in your body. If you should be left unconsumed for many months, perhaps you will crumble to dust; but that is not your concern now. As surely as a patient in a vegetative state, you are trapped in a passive body. You are aware of your surroundings. You can mentally cry out to God. But this is all you can do.

When Jesus was nailed to the Cross, his power to move became limited. He was fixed in one position, able only to speak, and – with great pain – to breathe. Then he breathed his last, and a moment later his spirit left his body. You are unleavened bread, a body with no ‘breath’ within it. You find yourself suspended like Jesus at the moment of that last breath. You can no longer speak. But your spirit has not yet left the body you now inhabit. You have become a Victim. Now you will be locked away in a tabernacle, alone for many hours. Cold. Dark. But perhaps not totally alone. In your spirit, you are aware that thousands of souls around the world are making a ‘spiritual communion’. They cannot receive Holy Communion in their mouths right now, so in their spirits they are crying out their desire to be joined with you. This, perhaps, brings you some comfort. All you can do is use your mental power of prayer to pray for the world in general and these souls in particular.

Then, after many hours, it is time for Adoration. A deacon opens the tabernacle and places you in a monstrance. The choice of time and place is not yours, but you are on public display. In your helplessness, you can do nothing but be aware of the people present. Many are gazing upon you with looks of love in their eyes. When they look at your wheaten form, they see Jesus. You have become His image. You know you are not worthy of such loving adoration; the pain purifies you as it would if you were in purgatory and a friend was praying for your soul. You also become aware of less attentive worshippers in the chapel – some struggling to stay focussed on their prayers, others happy to be in your presence but giving their attention to a rosary or prayer book; a few bored children ignoring you entirely. All you can do is remember each worshipper and invoke God’s favour upon them. At length, the deacon picks up the monstrance and makes the sign of the Cross over the people with you. You can do no more than intensely beg God to bless each and every one of them, and the families and needs they hold in their hearts.

The deacon returns you to the cold, dark, tabernacle. For the next few weeks, this pattern will repeat: long hours of imprisonment, dimly aware of those calling out for spiritual communion; short periods of exposure to the public gaze. All the while you are suspended in impotence, like Jesus refusing to use his divine power to escape the Cross. But at length it is time for you to be replaced by a fresh host, and when the deacon returns you to the tabernacle, he places you among the hosts for the people’s communion. Your heart leaps, for now you will be able to fulfil your purpose – for Eucharistic bread is meant to be consumed as food for body and soul.

It is Mass. A priest, having fractured a newly-consecrated host to show the Lamb of God to the congregation, realises he has need of more for the people’s communion. He takes you into his hands and breaks you, in half, into quarters. Tiny fragments from the broken edges fly into space and are lost. Some become dust so small that they can no longer be identified as bread, and they disconnect from your sense of self. But you now exist as four quarters upon the altar and some smaller crumbs scattered to obscure corners. Each of these fragments is you.

A pious soul comes forward for Holy Communion, and the priest places you upon her tongue. You are baptised in her saliva, which immediately begins to soften your substance. You lose your shape and become conformed to the roof of her mouth, an intimate bond between communion and communicant.

Another friend of God receives you into her hand. You sense that she does not do this lightly, but takes a moment to gaze upon you with love and reverence before tenderly picking you up and placing you on her tongue, where you begin to dissolve.

A third communicant is less delicate, and on receiving you upon his tongue begins to chew. You remember that Your Lord said, literally, ‘take this all of you and munch this’ – and also how St Ignatius of Antioch dreamed of being ‘ground between the teeth’ of the wild beasts who would face him in the Roman arena. Part of your victimhood is to suffer the indignity of being masticated. You are crushed, and ground, and split into a dozen fragments. You suffer no physical pain, but your identity, your presence, is stretched across a growing number of fragments, each of decreasing beauty. It is Your Lord’s will that you should be bread, broken for others.

You, in your final quarter, are placed in the hand of a man who seems confused. Perhaps he has not been to Mass for many years. He hesitates, gazes at you with incomprehension, and eventually lifts you to his mouth. With a press of his tongue you are folded in half, and swallowed intact.

You find yourself simultaneously in the stomachs of four communicants. Here it is your destiny to lose your identity as you dissolve in the potent acid necessary for human digestion and gastric reflux. Your physical substance will be broken down into base sugars, absorbed in the small intestine, and carried through the bloodstream until the sugar finds a living cell crying out for energy. But at that point your substance will have ceased to be bread, so you will no longer be present. You will have given up your body to give life to others. When Christ’s soul left his body on Calvary, he died for all mankind. For you, each little death of withdrawing from physical form is to give a spark of life to but one individual soul.

You become aware that you are still bread. Two small crumbs fell away as you were broken. You are picked up between the finger and thumb of the priest, and reverently placed in what remains of the Precious Blood. You sense yourself dissolving into an ocean of mercy, and for the first time experience spirit-to-spirit communication with Jesus Christ. You recognise in each other what it means to be an innocent victim, to be powerless and lifted up in the sight of others.

The priest has only seen one of the crumbs. The other has fallen from the altar on to the floor, where you will remain unnoticed until you crumble to dust. You panic, but sense the consoling presence of Jesus. No-one has acted with wilful irreverence. It was his choice to become vulnerable, to take the risk of becoming lost fragments of the Divine Presence. You are also a victim of this choice.

After many weeks, you feel your spirit detach from the last crumbling crumb of what can no longer be identified as ‘bread’. But your identity is not lost. Jesus is holding you in being, united with his spirit and yet without losing the distinctiveness which makes you, ‘you’. Because of your union with Jesus, you are present in every consecrated Host throughout the world. You are present in every ordained priest, in every baptised Christian, in every gathering of ‘two or three’ invoking the Divine Name, in every proclamation of the Word of God. One day, Jesus will raise you to a new and glorious body; but for now, you have been broken for others and scattered throughout the world. You have been bread.

Credit: Elisa Pires via JMJ Rio 2013-Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

This meditation uses ‘substance‘ in its everyday meaning of ‘bodily stuff’ rather than in the philosophical sense behind the word transubstantiation.