Fruitlessness

The Scriptures given for this weekend’s Masses offer us three vineyards which fail to bear fruit. In the Gospel parable, the fault is not with the vineyard but the faithless servants who tend it and don’t want to yield up the harvest – reminiscent of the thorns which choke the good seed in the parable of the sower. The psalm considers a vineyard plundered by the forest boar and the beasts of the field, just as the birds of the air carry away the seed scattered and sown. But Isaiah’s vineyard is harder to diagnose. The vinedresser does everything right, and yet the harvest yields only sour grapes. Is this a problem of shallow roots, or is something else amiss?

I am reminded of another Gospel story of fruitlessness. The disciples had been fishing all night and caught nothing. Jesus appears on the shore and instructs them to ‘let down their nets on the other side’ – and they immediately net a massive haul of fish. So what is the difference between the two sides of the boat? It seems to me that the fruitless side represents catechesis – the successful side is evangelisation!

Earlier this week, the Church celebrated the 1600th anniversary of the death of St Jerome, the great scholar who translated the whole Bible into Latin in the age when Greek was ceasing to be the common language of the Church. We have much to be grateful for in the conversion, life and work of this great Doctor of the Church. However, one choice which Jerome made has had a profound impact on the mission of the Church – and that was his translation of Matthew 28:19-20a, where Jesus commissions the church to ‘go and make disciples of all nations’.

Greek scholars recognise that the active verb in the Great Commission is ‘to make disciples’ – the Greek word is mathēteusate (μαθητεύσατε) which is the source of our English ‘mathematics’. There is no one verb in English which can translate this exactly, but ‘apprentice’ (as a verb, “Apprentice that young student to me…”) might come closest. Latin also has no single word equivalent to the Greek, and St Jerome made the fateful choice to use the Latin word docete, meaning ‘teach’. This legacy was reflected a millennium later in the Douai-Rheims translation:

Going therefore, teach ye all nations: baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.

Teaching all nations is already a challenge, but one with a clear solution – disseminating information. If all the Lord requires His Church to do is to give information about Jesus to the world, we can smile and say we have done that in abundance. But still it seems we have ‘fished all night and caught nothing’. Our Catholic Schools are not a production line for faithful Catholics!

Making disciples of all peoples requires a much greater personal investment, coaching all the people of the world in the art of being a follower of the Master. During the 2010s, the Catholic Church has been blessed with significant insights into the work of making disciples. Sherry Weddell took what was already known among Evangelical Christians and demonstrated that the same dynamics were true among Catholics: future disciples begin at a trusting relationship with a representative of the Church, reach a crisis point of having to decide whether they wish to entrust their lives to Jesus, and then actively seek to understand what it means to follow Him.

Fr James Mallon has showed how a parish can become a vibrant disciple-making institution by having a ‘game plan’ which uses Alpha or a similar course as the engine to bring future disciples to that key decision point, and small ‘connect’ groups as a place to form new disciples and discern their gifts in the service of the Church. A healthy parish is an invitational parish, which invites those who are not already members to come aboard! ‘Making disciples’ is a process which embraces many stages of growth. It begins with primary evangelisation – the proclamation of Jesus to those who do not yet know that He is the Risen Lord. (This includes many self-identifying Catholics for whom he is merely a role model or teacher of morality.) It continues with catechesis, which truly begins when a person is actively seeking to be a follower of the Master. It finds its perfection when the disciple is ready to ask “What are my gifts? How can I use them in God’s service? What is my life’s vocation?”

A few years before Weddell & Mallon published their books, the Church in Lancaster was asking the right questions. Bishop Patrick O’Donohue famously produced a series of reports under the title Fit for Mission? with his reflections on Catholic Schools and on the Church at large winning accolades from the Vatican. I’ve just been reading the key documents produced and it is clear that Bishop O’Donohue was a man deeply in love with Our Lord and frustrated at the lack of fruitfulness in his diocese. He was asking the right questions, and it seems to me that the answers he found identified the ‘what’ but not the ‘how’.

In 2007, the bishop produced the first document, the Guide, to begin a process of managing decline in his diocese. Most Catholic dioceses in England & Wales have had to address falling numbers of clergy, and it’s natural for a bishop to ask not only ‘how do we thin out the service we provide’ but ‘how do we effectively deliver the mission of the Church’. O’Donohue began by considering why our Catholic faith makes us distinctively different from the world around us:

I am strongly of the belief that the difference lies in two realities basic to our Christian lives: first and foremost, it lies in our relationship with Jesus Christ, particularly in our celebration of the Eucharist and our proclamation of the Gospel; secondly, in the way our relationship with Jesus changes our relationships with others. If our Christian life is not about becoming, through grace, more and more like Jesus in our attitudes and behaviour what is the point of it?

Guide, page 4.

The bishop challenges the people of his diocese to reflect on whether they still believe in the power of prayer and in the promises of Christ?

To my mind it seems the only reason why people ultimately leave the practise of their faith is because they don’t have a strong enough belief that Jesus gives His Body and Blood to them in the Eucharist! This lack of faith underscores the vital importance of sound Eucharistic catechesis adapted to the different stages of people’s faith formation.

Guide, page 6.

The bishop goes on to present a strong vision of people ‘gathered and sent’, echoing the observation from Vatican II that:

It was through their intense, personal friendship with the Lord, and each other, that these twelve ordinary men became Apostles, who ‘handed on what they had received from the lips of Christ, from living with Him, and from what He did’.

Dei Verbum 7

But there’s a problem! Bishop O’Donohue echoes Pope Benedict XVI’s diagnosis that the root cause of all the problems in our society as ‘forgetfulness of God’. He asks:

Why are we embarrassed to talk about God’s love for us and our love for God? What are the things that hold us back from evangelising our families, parishes, schools, and wider communities?

Guide, page 12.

Here, we need to ask a key question. Have the people of Lancaster Diocese experienced the love of God, and come to love God in return, in such a way that they have something to talk about? If they haven’t, they cannot be the witnesses the Bishop seeks – and the problem is less one of forgetfulness of God, more that there was nothing to remember in the first place.

The following year, at the end of August 2008, the bishop produced his reflection on the consultation process: Fit for Mission? – Church. It is a document of great teaching. It sets out the vision of Vatican II and defends the idea that the Council was an authentic development of Catholic teaching, not a rupture with the past. It calls for an obedient implementation of the Church’s liturgical norms – the Ordinary Form in English with fluency in Latin chants for some of the main Mass texts. It sets out a vision of a people called to live a life nourished by the sacraments – and it champions the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a core text to be at the heart of the Church’s work of teaching. On page 7, the bishop uses the example of the Apostles who had ‘worked hard all night long but have caught nothing’ – and it is here I fear the bishop has fallen into St Jerome’s trap, seeing a renewed teaching of the Catholic faith as the answer. Of course we need authentic, accurate and accessible catechesis – but the vineyard will yield sour grapes if the teaching is offered to people who are not yet open to Christ.

A clear symptom of the problem is seen in the Parish Review Final Document, not authored by the bishop but collating the way the 108 parishes of the diocese have received what is asked of them. How many parish priests understand what ‘evangelisation’ is? Numerous parishes say that they will undertake ‘evangelisation’ as part of their mission strategy, and it is clear several of them have pasted in a boilerplate text where parishes likely to become regional hubs of activity aspire to be ‘a focal point for adult formation, mission and evangelisation, maintaining deanery contact with the parishes, coordinating special Masses and other events and generally promoting
cross-parish cooperation’. There are in fact only two out of the 108 parishes which declare how they propose to implement evangelisation: Whitehaven is working on a parish census in advance of its parish mission, while Carlisle will use Landings for connecting with lapsed Catholics. Another parish, Ingol, proposes Landings as part of its sacramental programme, while Poulton proposes to use Alpha or Cafe material for the ongoing formation of its Catholics!

Teaching alone is not enough to bring souls through the threshold of true conversion, which is openness to change. Nor is the work of evaneglisation something which can easily be done with a large congregation gathered in a parish church or classroom. The missing ingredient, the ‘letting down the nets on the other side’, is the need for individuals who already love Jesus to have personal conversations which require not-yet-committed Catholics to take an honest look at where Jesus is in their lives. This can happen at rallies and retreats but is more likely to take place in ongoing relationships with intentional disciples. In his document on schools, Bishop O’Donohue does signal awareness of what is needed…

Catechesis is a moment or stage in the process of evangelisation. First, evangelisation evokes a questioning curiosity to know more concerning the deep truths about God and humanity, in order to lead others to make the ‘yes’ of faith, and then catechesis aims – as Pope John Paul II puts it – at enabling people to move from curiosity to communion with Jesus Christ. … To put people in communion with the Person of Christ must mean more than instruction in information or historical facts – though this ‘grammar’ of our faith must not be ignored – but needs to involve experience, encounter, and transformation. Hence, the importance of good liturgy and the sacraments in the life of the school and college.

Schools, page 24.

Yes, a good liturgy can be an occasion which evokes this questioning curiosity; but our lived experience surely tells us that this is rarely the case for those who have sat through many liturgies and not experienced conversion. The bishop asks the right questions:

How many of our young people have a living relationship with Jesus?

How many have the first idea of how to pray?

How many have really experienced His living and healing presence?

Schools, page 61.

The clearest sign that the bishop views our problem as a teaching problem is in his broad strategy for schools:

Our schools and colleges must be places where the ‘light of truth’ is cherished and spread. I would like to suggest two ways of doing this:

1. Promote respect for the authority of the doctrinal and moral truth safeguarded by the Pope and the Bishops.

2. Create an exciting and engaging environment that enables pupils to experience the light of truth, using the full range of multi‐media and communication technologies.

Schools, page 10.

I fear that regarding the fundamental problem of our contemporary church as a teaching problem (or as a liturgy problem) will cause us to find ourself in Isaiah’s vineyard. We can invest huge efforts into presenting Catholic teaching in excellent ways (and celebrating beautiful liturgies with great care). These things will always bear some fruit. But unless we ‘let down the nets on the other side’ we will still be short of fish, and the only way to do this is to deploy intentional disciples to hold one-to-one conversations in trusting relationships. From a starting point of few available disciples, any such initiative will get off to a slow start. But since it’s the only thing that can work to rescue the vineyard, let us begin with haste!

Digital Ministry – Working with Video

More and more churches are needing to minister through multimedia at the moment. Here are some tips from what I’ve learned over the last few months:

The common standard for modern video work is HD – this comes in various flavours, but it is best to work in Full HD, also known as HD 1080 – this creates landscape-format video images which are 1,920 pixels wide and 1,080 pixels high. The aspect ratio is 16:9. This means that:

  • If contributors are shooting contributions using their mobile phones, consider asking them to shoot in landscape orientation.
  • If you need a still image to embed into a video, it should ideally by 1,920×1,080 pixels or at least cropped to a 16:9 aspect ratio.

Video editing software can be choosy about which kinds of video it will accept. MP4 and QuickTime seem to be formats that can be easily used.

To CONVERT video files, the best (free) tool I have discovered is Handbrake. I was a little uncertain when I first found it – what’s with the cheesy pineapple logo and the very name? – but I have found it works well in practice and converts video with fewer glitches and quality loss problems than any other tool. It can certainly handle MPG files and VOB files – if you have the kind of DVD which plays automatically on a DVD player, the footage on it will probably in VOB format. Needless to say, you should respect others’ copyright and not rip material which you have no right to use.

To VIEW video files, VLC player is a (free) player which is very flexible and can play videos in slow and fast motion – helpful if you need to transcribe what someone is saying. VLC can transcode files between formats but I haven’t found the ease-of-use or output quality as good as Handbrake.

To EDIT video files, Da Vinci Resolve (free) is an amazing product. It seemed far too good to be true, but it’s legit: the parent company makes its money by taking a premium if you want to unlock 4K capability and by selling compatible hardware. You can add backing audio, cut video clips into sections, paste them where you want, add stills, create captions and rolling credits – all for free! When you are ready to ‘render’ your finished product, take care: the software defaults to ‘maximum’ rate but it’s best to set 25% if you don’t want your computer to freeze!

To BROADCAST live video, if you are using a PC and not streaming directly from a mobile device, use OBS Studio (free). The best camera available to you may well be a phone or tablet – you can install a 3rd party app (NOT free) on an Apple device and the associated plugin. I haven’t tried with an Android device but apparently this 3rd party app and these instructions could work. If you need to connect a church sound system to a PC I’ve had success with the Komplete Audio 1 device.

If you want to feed your OBS mix into a Zoom, Skype, Webex or other live video call, you can turn the OBS output into a ‘virtual camera’ so your live-stream can pick it up. On this page, click the “Go to download” button on the top right.

If you’re running an event over Zoom, and are using images (videos, presentations etc.) it’s best to have separate devices for presenting and managing guests, otherwise your presenter screen could be affected by mouse-movements and pop-ups when guests enter, leave, raise hands, etc.

If you use a PC to project words onto a screen and want the same words to come up in a window on your live broadcast, which is being streamed by a different PC on your same network, you can use OBS with a NDI-Newtek plugin to capture the screen of the projection PC as a source for the broadcast PC. The layout isn’t very clear but look on the right side of the download page for a green lozenge saying ‘latest’, click that and scroll down for the .pkg (Mac) or .exe (Windows) versions. If you use Linux I assume you’ll know what to look for! Then watch this instruction video on how to make use of the plugins. Warning: if your projection machine is a laptop, there are known issues with capturing a laptop screen (because different hardware drives the built-in screen and the external screen port) so you may have to capture the projection software window instead.

Change My Heart, O God

Homily to Members of Sion Community and Livestream Participants for The 17th Sunday of Year A.

Is there a God-shaped hole in your heart, which nothing else can fill?

Are you looking for an opportunity to explore the meaning of life?

No. No. And again, most definitely, no!

If you’d asked me those questions at any point in my teenage or adult life, the answer would have always been the same – a clear and definite no. That might surprise you. But here’s the thing – we’re all built differently!

It’s a classic move by a platform preacher to ask about the God-shaped hole in your heart, because most people will answer ‘yes’.

The famous Alpha course sells itself as ‘An opportunity to explore the meaning of life.’

In fact, I’m guessing that many of you joining us for this Mass have taken part in Alpha or responded to a preacher offering you divine help for that hole in your heart. Great! You are merchants of shrewd judgment, and you have been restlessly seeking the pearl of great price until you have found it and ‘sold out for God.’ Well done!

That’s not my story.

I was a boy very happily stumbling through life, exploring what was on offer, when I made an unexpected discovery – my ‘treasure in the field’. I grew up very happily in South Wales without God being part of my life. I was sent to Sunday School and had Religious Education at day school but I never stopped to ask if I believed God was there until my gran died, when I was 11. Then, through an experience of prayer, I discovered God was real – but so what?

In my childhood I was a bookworm, and not very interested in playing with other children (despite my Mum’s best efforts). That might sound boring but I was happy – and the worst fate that could befall me (in the days before the internet) was running out of things to read. When I went to university, I joined the student Catholic Society. They had talks – which were interesting! They had prayer events – which were crucial! But they also had social events. I wasn’t so interested in those, but being on the society committee meant I had to get involved; and that was the best thing that could have happened to me.

Part of God’s plan was that, through becoming a member of His Church, I would be transformed from a bookish individual who didn’t care much for other people, to someone with a wider social circle who could draw the best out of me. Through the student Catholic society, I made friends, received a kiss from a girl for the first time in my life, and – of course! – fell in love. If all of that hadn’t happened, I doubt I would have been accepted for seminary, let alone become a priest! But slowly, painfully, God helped me to discover that relationships with other people are important.

God has a plan, and St Paul sets it out wonderfully in the reading we’ve just heard from his letter to the Romans. In fact, this text includes my favourite verse of scripture, which I used on my ordination card: “God turns all things to the good for those who love Christ Jesus.” God’s plan is that we should be CALLED, JUSTIFIED and GLORIFIED!

We are called – called by God to know him, love him and serve him. Some of us know that we’re missing something until we find God. Others don’t, until God finds the right way to call us. That’s why the Kingdom of Heaven is like both the purposeful merchant and the serendipitous stroller in the field. If you know, deep down, that God is calling you to something right now, but you are resisting – yield! Let go, and let God!

We are justified – which means although we are not perfect, we can be perfected by God. St Paul reminded the Romans that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’. God wants to forgive us! Jesus died so this could happen! Once we have responded to God’s call, we must keep asking God to rescue us from our brokenness. That means receiving baptism once in a lifetime, receiving forgiveness through the ministry of a priest at healthy intervals, and making a daily examination of conscience where we ask God to make right what we cannot repair by own power. Do you need to be put right with God? If you are resisting the call to be baptised or go to confession – yield! Let go, and let God!

The journey doesn’t stop there! We are called to be glorified. The Eastern Christians have a wonderful word for this – theiosis! It means being radically transformed until we reflect the perfect image of God. And how do we carry the glory of God? It is to God’s glory that we bear much fruit! For many of us, this is through good works of charity, helping our neighbours and bringing love to the places we walk. But we also bear fruit when we are ready to speak of God’s love to a world which needs to find it – a world of people looking for something to fill their hearts or unsuspectingly waiting to stumble over God’s presence.

Since September, I’ve been living with a brilliant group of young people. Sion Community takes on a small group of young adults each year who want to learn to spread the Good News of Jesus in a Catholic context. Our ministry year comes to end this week, and some of these young people are moving on to careers or to seminary. Others are remaining with Sion Community to continue this work into the future. Today is our last broadcast Mass, and it’s been my privilege to share God’s Word with you and with them over these last four months that we’ve been broadcasting. Please keep our ‘class of 2020’ in your prayers as they continue their journey from glory to glory wherever God sends them. With their help, I’d like to share one final message with you:

The Kingdom of Heaven is like a patient who has a pain in her heart and doesn’t know what’s causing the problem… 

How to Pray

Homily to Members of Sion Community and Livestream Participants for The 16th Sunday of Year A.

There are lots of ways to pray. Some are better than others!

Sometimes I meet people who are worried that either they ‘don’t know how to pray’ or they are ‘doing it wrong’. I wonder if that’s because they are carrying around a hopelessly ideal picture of what ‘good’ prayer would be like?

If you have the gift of starting a time of prayer, and then remaining totally focussed on a Bible text, or a meditation idea, or the presence of God, until you finish – thank God! You have a rare gift! For most people who pray, for most of the time, it’s not like that.

Often, when we go to pray, our minds will be flooded with distractions – they are the weeds which spring up in the garden of our soul. But take heart! You can actually turn those distractions into prayer! Keep a notepad to hand! So if your first thought is ‘I must buy eggs when I go shopping!’ write it down on your list – but then thank God for the gift of food or pray for people who are afflicted by famine. If your mind wanders to a friend who is sick, pray for that friend. If something matters to you, it will matter to the heavenly Father who loves you – so you can turn your distraction into a narrative. “Heavenly Father, I’m worried about person X, I’m grateful for thing Y that happened, and I’m very sorry I did Z.” Or you might be more comfortable speaking to Jesus as your brother, rather than a Father-figure. That’s OK too.

If you’ve been taught to approach God with deep respect, this kind of prayer might seem dangerously informal! After all, isn’t Jesus our Great High Priest? Yes, but he is also as human as we are. Prayer is a conversation, and speaking with Jesus is rather like being one of the pilots in the same squadron as Prince William, grandson of Queen Elizabeth II. Behind closed doors, you can treat a Royal Heir to the Throne as one of your mates, and share a laugh and a joke with him. On the parade ground, it is right and proper to bow and show the utmost respect in the presence of His Royal Highness. If you are part of the squadron, William is at one and the same time your friend and your prince. It is just the same with the relationship we are invited to have with Our Lord.

We don’t go to prayer planning to get distracted. We might go to prayer simply to have a conversation with God, who loves to hear about our day and what’s on our mind. It might be a rather one-sided conversation, but God is listening. And it’s important to take time to listen to God. We know his voice speaks in the words of the Bible, but we might hear him speak to us in a personal way too. So let’s not fall into the trap of saying: “Listen, Lord, your servant is speaking!” – we must listen to the Bible, and wait to see if the gentle voice of God does wish to stir in our hearts.

Today’s lesson from St Paul speaks about another kind of prayer, one which is not led by ourselves but by God’s Spirit living in us. St Peter and the first Apostles experienced the Spirit powerfully on the Day of Pentecost. Many Catholics today – including many members of Sion Community – have experienced similar things, with the Holy Spirit inspiring clear thoughts, or visual images, or praying through us in sounds of pure joy. Some in first century Rome, as some in the 21st century church, will have asked the question: “What’s the point in praying in sounds which have no apparent meaning?” St Paul’s answer is as valid today as it was then: “This form of prayer is pleasing to God because it is inspired by God.”

Prayer might not lead to wonderful feelings – indeed, at times, our prayer can feel very dry and tedious – but be sure of this: if you do pray, God will be with you. Know also that if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. So make a plan. Decide when and where you are going to pray in the days and weeks to come – especially if your rhythm of life is going to change during the school holidays. Treat God with the respect which God always deserves. But pray with faith. If you’re going to ask God for barbecue weather, buy the sun-tan lotion first!

Some inspiration – and much further good advice on prayer – from Elizabeth Wang.

Scattered and Connected

Homily to Members of Sion Community and Livestream Participants for The 15th Sunday of Year A.

Today, Jesus gives us a lesson in broadcasting. Yes, really! A sower went out to sow. The technical name for what the sower did is ‘broadcasting’ – scattering seed over a wide area. The alternative is deliberately drilling the into a row of closely-spaced spots. But this sower is broadcasting – sending a message of hope to a wide area. Not all of the seeds will take root. There will be some false starts. But in some random spots where the soil is good, we will see fruit. It’s like that in the Church – and it’s like that for us in Sion Community.

We’re a scattered community who share common values and a particular style of worshipping. Since March we’ve been broadcasting from here in the Ark, because 10 of us are living together in this place, sharing our community life full-time. There are a few other full-time members of our community who live elsewhere, but we haven’t been able to gather together since March. We also have around 40 other part-time, or Associate, members, who live all over England, many of whom have children at home, and even in normal times practical realities mean we can’t all gather together more than 2 or 3 times a year. And what’s true for Sion Community is true for the Church at large – for as long as I’ve been a Catholic, it’s struck me that almost any group of Catholics who share a common interest and want to do something together probably live too far apart from one another to meet regularly! This is part of God’s plan – for the sower chooses to scatter the seed widely, and not all the soil is good. But all is not lost…

Did you notice something in the Gospel today? Our Lord practices social distancing, so people can hear him better! If he’d stayed in the middle of a crowd, he’d have been smothered. But he gets into a boat and puts a little distance between himself and the people he wants to connect with – and that actually helps him connect!

Today we live in an incredible age of connection. Thanks to the Internet, people with a common interest can connect in ways they never did before. Now this is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a curse because people with ill-formed views can connect in places where they reinforce each other’s prejudices – some call this the ‘echo chamber’ effect. It’s a curse because from the distance of a screen, people are less polite to one another than they would be in person, and online interactions can become quite rude. But it’s a blessing because the seeds which have sprung up in diverse locations can now connect with each other in unprecedented ways. It’s been a blessing that we’ve been able to have our two Sunday Zoom rooms each week to support each other. Many of us, bishops included, have learned how to use Zoom, Facebook, YouTube and other media platforms in ways we would never have tried in other circumstances. And now the question is, how should we use these tools when we are no longer compelled to use them?

We human beings are contributing to rapid change in the natural world by burning fossil fuels and travelling huge distances on a regular basis, whether that’s the daily commute to the office or the occasional business trip to another continent. Yes, the climate experts disagree about quite how much impact our actions are having on the planet, but it would be irresponsible and unloving not to err on the side of caution. Last month, the Vatican released a reflection 5 years on from Pope Francis’ document on the environment, Laudato Si… the Vatican is too small for commuting to be an issue, but they are boasting about the solar panels on top of the Papal audience hall! To be sure, computers and network equipment use energy too, but not at the same rate as cars, buses, planes and trains. So we should be asking serious questions about how much we should keep using communication technology in future to reduce our use of fossil fuel, for work, for leisure, and above all for our Christian activities. And that brings us back to broadcasting.

At the end of July, some of the young people who have been helping broadcast these Masses will be leaving our community house. I’d like to say a special thank-you today to Luke, who is entering seminary in the autumn; Angela, who is returning to her work as an RE teacher in September; Oscar, who has just completed his teacher training course and will return to Spain in August; and Monika, who leaves next month to take up work in a school in Slovakia. Each of these missionaries is an example of what the seed of the word can do when it finds good soil and bears fruit in abundance. I’d like to thank them now on your behalf.

Six of us will be remaining in community, but we’ll also be taking some holiday time, so we won’t be broadcasting Sunday Mass from the Ark in August. We are, however, thinking of other ways of making some of our community prayer and activities available on-line, either on this YouTube Channel or through something that allows more two-way interaction. Perhaps you’re not a member of SIon Community but you’ve been enjoying our way of worshipping. You might want to come to some of our events when we are able to gather again next year. You might want to know about future on-line activities, too, as we explore ways of using new media to keep us connected! If you’d like us to email you about future activities, and you haven’t already been in touch with us by email, I’d really like to encourage you to drop us a line on media@sioncommunity.org.uk so we can you connected.

I’d also like you to do something for the four missionaries who are leaving us at the end of July: I’d like you to pray for them. There are many ways of praying! You can dedicate a decade of the rosary for each of them, or simply say ‘God bless Oscar and Angela, Monika and Luke’. But I’d like to invite you to be bold! Do you believe that God can speak to you to inspire a word to encourage another person? The Holy Spirit loves to use our voices to encourage and build up one another. Indeed, today’s First Reading declares that God’s Word doesn’t come forth without accomplishing what it sets out to do. So I’d like to encourage you, wherever you are, to simply open your mind to God right now, and ask God if there’s anything He wants to say to any or all of these missionaries. If something comes to your mind quickly, especially if it’s an unexpected thought that makes you think ‘this doesn’t feel like it comes from me’, I encourage you to send it in to us, and if it seems appropriate, we will share it with them privately.

Today, Jesus has taught us that broadcasting is part of God’s plan. We can choose whether to remain scattered, or to become connected. Jesus connected from a fishing boat. We’re connecting from an Ark. You can connect from home, but only if you want to bear fruit in abundance. The next step is up to you!

A Donkey for a King

Homily to Members of Sion Community and Livestream Participants for The 14th Sunday of Year A.

 

A camel, a donkey and a centaur were making their way along the road to the Holy City.

Maybe you haven’t met a centaur before – they were common in Narnia and the legends of Greece, but you don’t see so many these days. Imagine the body of a horse with the chest, arms and head of a human… that’s a centaur. They have a habit of being too clever for their own good!

I’m not sure how long these three had been on the road – neither were they, for it had been so long they’d forgotten how they had even come to take this road together. The camel carried a heavy pack upon its back, filled with food and drink and luxuries. The donkey and the centaur were yoked together to pull a cart, into which passers-by threw all kinds of trash.

Onwards they went, inspired by a voice within them which kept murmuring ‘all will be well when you reach the holy city’. Eventually they came to a long stretch of desert road, where the going was hard and the grazing was scarce. But one day the camel smelled rich pastures in the distance and turned off the narrow road. “Shall we follow?” asked the centaur – but the donkey simply brayed and continued pressing forward, following that gentle voice within.

A day came when they met some philosophers upon the road, who spoke of secret knowledge. “There are books God doesn’t want you to read!” they said. “There are cosmic energies apart from God which can bring you healing and power over nature!” The centaur was fascinated, and kept daydreaming about what they seemed to promise! This was hard for the donkey – without her companion paying attention to that voice urging ‘onwards to the holy city’, she had to work much harder keeping the centaur on track, and their pace slowerd considerably.

At length, the camel caught up with them, looking thin and worse for wear. The food in the green pastures had soon run out, and bandits had taken all the luxurious good in his pack. Alone and tired, the camel was glad to find his friends, and for some days they walked on together as companions, heeding that voice which called ‘onwards to the Holy City’. But then came a day when the faint aroma of a she-camel on heat wafted through the desert air. Our camel had already sired many calves, but this temptation was too much to resist… and the camel left his companions, never to return.

The two remaining travellers pressed on, coming ever closer to the Holy City but not yet seeing it upon the horizon. One night the centaur looked up at the night stars. Hadn’t a star once led the camel and its wise owner to meet the infant King of the Jews? There were no miracles in the sky tonight, but perhaps there was a way to discern a meaningful pattern in the stars…

“I think we should go that way!” said the centaur, as they settled down for the night.

The donkey shook her head, but the centaur, full of his own wisdom, slept restlessly and dreamed of finding a short cut.

In the morning, the donkey awoke alone. Still yoked to the cart of rubbish, but now with no companion to help her pull, the poor donkey staggered to her feet, unaided and unbalanced. Just then a healthy young man walked up, with muscles weathered by hard labour. “Let me give you a hand, O donkey,” said the man, and lifted the other side of the yoke on to his own shoulders. Strangely the yoke felt much lighter in the hands of this man than it did on the back of the centaur – and the man seemed to know exactly where he was going. Now, instead of whispering “Come”, that inner voice exulted with delight, “Yes! You are on the road to the Holy City!”

Each time they stopped for a break, the man would gently release the donkey from her yoke and rub down her aching muscles. He would also remove some of the trash which people had piled in her cart, disposing of it safely – though the donkey could not see quite how the man got rid of it. Each time they were ready to go again, the man would tenderly strap the donkey back into the yoke and then lift his own side of the beam. “My yoke is light” he whispered to her, “but you cannot be rid of your burden until we reach the Holy City”.

Some days later, a shining city on a hill appeared in the distance, and as they drew close, the man guided the donkey aside to a yard, the trading place of another carpenter. The man greeted his colleague, and a conversation followed. The man then whispered to the donkey: “I must leave you here for a while. You will find food and water while you wait; have patience, and you will see me again.”

The donkey was puzzled. Until now, the man had seemed so sure of the way to the Holy City. Now, at its very threshold, he was saying that it was not time to enter. The centaur would have had an argument and stormed off. The camel would have been so pleased with the food and drink on offer that he probably wouldn’t have minded staying outside the city forever. The donkey hesitated, but decided to trust the man. She didn’t need to understand the reasons; he had proved that he was kind and gentle and she was willing to trust him like a child.

A few days later, some Roman soldiers came and seized the cart she had been pulling, breaking it up to make timber for the crosses at the place of execution.

Not long after that, a stranger appeared and spoke to the owner. She could hear nothing except the words “the master needs it”, as the stranger came close and led her out of the yard. Somehow the stranger carried a trace of a familiar scent which soon became stronger, as a smiling face appeared at the city gates. “May I ride on you, my friend?” asked the kind man – and together, they entered the Holy City.

The rest, as they say, is history. For the donkey, it’s her story. The question is, will it be your story? When God asks you to turn aside from the luxuries of this world, will you get the hump? Will you be the self-taught centaur of your own attention? Or are you willing to be a donkey for the King of Kings? The path is yours to choose.

Unshackled

Homily to Members of Sion Community and Livestream Participants for The Solemnity of Saints Peter & Paul, 2020.

Is your heart in shackles? Is your freedom in chains? Brothers and sisters, learn a lesson today from St Peter and St Paul! These bonds can be broken by prayer!

But how should we pray? Today, the lives of these great saints will teach us about penance, petition, praise and personal prayer!

Sometimes, we feel trapped because we’ve made bad choices – we’ve sinned. But take heart! Jesus gave St Peter the ‘power of binding and loosing’ – which includes the power to say ‘Your sins are forgiven!’ The Church used this power to develop Confession, or the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which we also call ‘Penance’. It’s not been so easy to access this for the last few months, but this week the Church issued guidelines for England which will allow priests to publish times for confession again! If you want to experience freedom through the powerful prayer of penance, go!

Don’t be a bad-tempered child saying “I don’t need to!” – that’s petulance and pride! Be a friend of St Peter who wants to experience all the blessings of the power of the keys, all the graces that come from entrusting a penitent heart to the ministry of the church.

Sometimes we know someone else is in shackles, and we feel called to pray for them, and pray hard. One such person of prayer was Rhoda.

You don’t hear her name in today’s first reading, but if you read the whole of Acts 12, you’ll discover that when Peter was put in prison, the church in Jerusalem was praying for his release. They met in a house where the serving maid was called Rhoda. During one of their prayer meetings, there was a knock at the door – and to Rhoda’s amazement, it was Peter. She was so excited she ran back to the prayer meeting and shouted out “Peter’s at the door!” But poor Rhoda, she had no more success than St Mary Magdalen in proclaiming such miraculous good news. The people doubted her, until there came another loud knock at the door. The Risen Jesus might have been able to pass through a locked door; but St Peter, thought his shackles had fallen off and the prison doors had opened before him, was now stuck outside – because in her excitement, Rhoda hadn’t actually opened the gate!

Rhoda reminds us that it’s good to pray for people who need freedom, but we need to help in practical ways, too! Some of us may feel called to campaign for prisoners of conscience, including Christians imprisoned in other lands. Many of us will be concerned that members of black and other ethnic minorities don’t enjoy equal health and social privileges. The slogan “Black Lives Matter” is controversial. Don’t all lives matter? Yes, but following Christ who loved the outcast and disadvantaged, we must have a special care for those who, for whatever reason, are worse off in our society. Isn’t there a formal “Black Lives Matter Movement” whose founders have an explicit agenda to promote liberal sexual values which don’t match our Catholic morals? Yes, but the slogan is not the movement. It’s just good to be aware that if we choose to use the slogan as a sign of solidarity and support, some will read it as support for parts of a wider movement we might not choose to endorse. [You may be interested an in hour-long reflection on racial justice by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.]

We are called to bring freedom to those unjustly imprisoned. Let us address our petitions to the rulers of earth and the ruler of heaven!

Fr Raniero Cantalamessa recently wrote about the time St Paul and his companion Silas were in prison. They too were granted a miraculous escape – we read that God sent an earthquake while they were singing hymns of praise! They weren’t just crying out in their misery, “Jesus, get me out of here.” No, they were praising the goodness of God!

Now that’s a big test. Do you trust God enough to praise him when you’re in a trap? And more than that, do you trust that his plans will work out for the best – so much so that you can actually thank him that you’re in trouble? Another writer, Merlin Carothers, wrote a book with many stories of people who praised God because they were in trouble, and discovered God’s miraculous help soon followed! But this Merlin warns us it’s not a magic formula – it’s not “say words of praise and God will do something”, no, it’s an invitation to ask if you can see God’s goodness clearly enough to know that he’s worth praising even the midst of our troubles? What’s important is when we’re in trouble, we mustn’t look at ourselves and throw a pity party. We must look to heaven and praise God!

We can find freedom through confession and penance. We can find freedom through the petitions of others – and we can work and pray for others to be freed. We can find freedom through entrusting ourselves to God and offering praise. But we can also find freedom when other people pray for us in a personal way, freedom that helps us to take positive steps we might not have taken otherwise. One example of that is through Unbound Prayer, which we’ve been supporting as a community during this last year. This is a model of praying with other people to tackle the spiritual roots of the things that block our freedom. But freedom can also come through the simple prayers of other Christians who take time to listen to us and pray with us. So to end today’s message, I’d like to invite Monika, one of our youth members, to share one story from her own experience.

Interview for Lithuanian Radio

The text which follows is the extended version of an interview I recently offered LRT Radio in Lithuania, in preparation for supporting Lithuania’s International Evangelisation School. The edited version, in translation, can be heard on the radio site.

Our guest today is Fr Gareth Leyshon, a Catholic priest from the UK. Fr Gareth has been a parish priest for 12 years, but now works full-time with the Sion Community for Evangelism. Fr Gareth, could you tell us something about yourself and the community you belong to?

It’s great to be with you today! You could say I am on my 4th career at the moment! I was given my first computer in 1982. I learned to program when I was still at school. In the 1980s there were lots of “learn to program” magazines. I earned some money writing articles for them. But I was more interested in astronomy, so at school I specialised in maths and physics. I went to Oxford University for three years, and then went home to Wales for my PhD. I spent four years studying dust falling into black holes in distant galaxies – that was my 2nd career.

During the 1990s, I went on many Catholic retreats for young adults. The “Youth 2000” movement invited young people to spend time praying the rosary, adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and listening to the teaching of the Catholic Church. Towards the end of my degree, I went to one of these retreats and asked God what I should do next. Nothing clear came to me in the prayer time, but I drove a friend home from the retreat. In the car, we talked about our futures. I remember saying: “I don’t know what I’m going to do next but when I become a priest…” I stopped talking, I was so surprised at those words coming out of my mouth! So in 1999, I handed in my PhD thesis in July and started seminary in September.

Every Catholic priest either belongs to a religious community or works under the authority of a local bishop. I applied to the Archbishop of Cardiff, who is responsible for South-East Wales, and one county in England across the border. I was ordained priest in 2007 and my 3rd career was in parish ministry. I spent 6 years in one parish in the Welsh Valleys, which used to be a centre for coal mining and iron making, but had become a university town. Then I served in several parishes in Cardiff, the capital city of Wales. But I sensed God was asking me for something more – which is why I asked my bishop for permission to join the Sion Community for Evangelism.

I learned about Sion Community in the 1990s, when I met two of its founder members who had become teachers in Wales. When they started a family, they had to leave full-time mission work. Then in 2006, I spent three months training with Sion Community. Although priests spend six years in seminary, I didn’t feel well equipped to share the Catholic message with people who weren’t believers. How do we help people with no faith discover that God is real? How can we show Catholics who no longer attend church that God is inviting them to meet him there? What can we say to Catholics who do go to Mass, to help them discover that Jesus is alive and wants to speak to their hearts? Why don’t many Catholics want to invite other people to come to church and know Jesus? My bishop gave me permission to attend a three-month course with Sion Community to find out.

As a newly ordained priest, I had no free time to keep up my links with Sion Community. But in 2016, my bishop made some changes to my duties which gave me enough space to become a part-time, or ‘Associate’ member of the community. That meant that I could help out with parish missions – going to another parish for a week to preach at daily services and assist with confessions. It also meant I could attend the two community gatherings each year, spending time with other Catholics – mostly laity, not clergy – people who were passionate about sharing the message of Jesus. During those years of part-time membership, I experienced an overwhelming joy every time I assisted with a mission or attended a community gathering. This led me to ask my bishop for permission to leave my parish and be a full-time missionary – so I began my 4th career, as a Sion Community Missionary, in January last year.

Before coronavirus, the full time missionary work took me to parishes in Scotland, Ireland and Wales for weeks of preaching. I also helped our school mission team to work in several schools in England. With school pupils, we use music, drama, videos and, for the younger children, puppet shows, to share the message that God loves us and Jesus wants to teach us how to love other people. Right now, we cannot visit schools or parishes. We are learning how to make video resources and connect with young people, safely, through social media.

Are you a Catholic believer from your childhood? Which love did come first – science or faith?

I became a Catholic when I was 16 years old. Wales in the 1970s was a Christian culture. Most children were sent to some kind of church – Anglican, Methodist, Baptist or Catholic. Even the Government-run schools had Christian prayers every morning. Both my parents grew up as members of the Anglican Church, but stopped worshipping when they were teenagers. Dad isn’t sure that there is a God – he would call himself agnostic. Mum believes there is Someone but doesn’t let it affect her life. I was baptised as an Anglican at 9 months – my grandfather was an active member of that church, and made sure that happened. When I was old enough to go to children’s church, my parents sent me to a local evangelical group called the Salvation Army.

My love for science came long before I took an interest in God. As a child, I loved reading books, and would go every week to the children’s library in town to borrow something new to read. At the age of 7, I discovered the science section. As soon as I had read a book about space, I wanted to know more – within a few months, I had read every astronomy book they had! Then my parents bought me a telescope so I could study the planets and stars at night.

Faith only came to me when I was 11 years old. I learned about Bible stories from Sunday School with the Salvation Army – and at weekday school. But I never asked myself if I thought they were real. I knew how to say the right words when it was my turn to pray, but I never asked if I was really ‘talking to someone’. Then, in February 1985, my grandmother died. It was the first time I’d lost a grandparent when I was old enough for that to hurt. I said the first serious prayer of my life: “God, if you are there, look after my grandmother – and show me you are real.”

What happened next is difficult to put into words. Over the next few weeks, I had a definite sense that Someone was there when I prayed. I would pray for lost things to be found, and they would be found quickly. I read about the different religions in the world. Who was this Someone I was connecting with?

Later that same year, I started Secondary School, and was given a Bible to read. You might have heard of the Gideon Society, who leave Bibles in hotel rooms around the world? In Wales in the 1990s, they tried to give every child a copy of the New Testament and Psalms. The gift came with a request to read the Bible every day, and it came with a 2-year reading plan. So in 2 years I had read the whole of the New Testament. It seemed to me that the Someone I was connecting with by praying was the same Jesus I met in the pages of the Bible. There was no other religion in the world whose founder had passed through death and returned alive!

Much of what the Bible asked me to do, I was already doing. I tried my best to be kind, help other people, and forgive quickly. But there was one thing Jesus asked me to do that I wasn’t already doing: to eat his flesh, and drink his blood. I was still going to church on Sundays, but the Salvation Army didn’t offer Holy Communion. So I read about the other kinds of church, and I discovered that the Catholic Church had believed for 2000 years that when a priest blessed bread and wine, it really becomes Jesus’ Body and Blood. I also read about places like Lourdes and Fatima. If the Mother of Jesus was appearing and asking people to pray the rosary, the Catholic Church must be doing a good thing! So at the age of about 14, I decided that I wanted to be a Catholic. But it took two more years for me to find the courage to tell my parents and start going to Mass! I became a Catholic at the Easter Vigil in 1990, at the age of 16.

So I fell in love first with science, then with Jesus, then with the Catholic Church. Science was my first loved, and it shaped my decisions for university. I applied to the famous Oxford University and was accepted to read Physics. There, I fell in love with a girl for the first time in my life – but it didn’t work out. I started thinking about priesthood before I left Oxford, but the chaplains there said I was too new as a Catholic to be ready to make that decision. Instead, I worked in another English University, Nottingham, as a chaplain’s assistant for a year. Then Cardiff University offered me a funded place to research Black Holes!

Gravity is the most powerful physical force in the universe. A star shines because it’s a nuclear reactor, but when it runs out of suitable fuel to burn, gravity takes over. It’s the heat from the nuclear reactions which keeps the heart of a star bubbling up at a particular size. When a star reaches the end of its life, its heart collapses and its outer shell is blown off into space. You’ve probably seen beautiful pictures of space clouds from the Hubble Space Telescope? Many of those are the outer shells of exploded stars. But gravity can crush the heart of the star into something so tiny that, with all the matter piled up in one place, nothing – not even light – can travel fast enough to overcome the gravity. That’s what we call a Black Hole.

We think that many, if not all, galaxies have a black hole at their centre. A galaxy is a collection of hundreds of millions of stars bound together by gravity. The stars swirl around each other, often forming spiral patterns – but if they travel too close to the heart of the galaxy, they will be torn apart by the Black Hole and add to its power. The more stuff that falls into the black hole, the stronger it gets. But like water flowing down your plughole, stuff can’t fall straight into the Black Hole – if too much of it tries to go in at once, it creates a ring with the inner edge falling in first. My PhD work was to study these rings, and see if light from the hot gas there behaved in the ways that scientists predicted. My conclusion was that it did – but the evidence was not strong because the signals were so hard to measure.

Half-way through my PhD I had to start thinking about my next career move. Did I wish to become a teacher? Did I want to continue scientific research? But that was when I drove home from a youth retreat and found myself declaring that I wanted to be a priest!

Can faith and science fundamentally match together? How do you personally reconcile the fact that you are PhD in astrophysics and a priest?

Any scientist is a truth-seeker. How does the Universe work? What does the evidence say? We build on our knowledge of things which are certain, to explore ideas which are uncertain. Scientists have good imaginations. We produce thousands of ideas! But we must test our ideas against the real world, and nature is always right! A professional scientist needs lots of humility; the scientist must always recognise truth, even when it means letting go of his or her own ideas.

My journey into faith was also a search for truth. What do the different religions in the world say? Which one matches my experience of prayer? Which one makes predictions which I can test out in my life?

I had several data points to work with. First, the claim that Jesus rose from the dead – and hundreds of martyrs died in the first Christian century for insisting that it was true. Second, the places that the Virgin Mary had appeared, asking people to go to Mass and pray the rosary. Third, the things Jesus said about people who follow him. Would we experience answered prayer? Would we experience the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit? When I was a very new believer, God seemed to give positive answers to my simple prayers for lost things. I don’t get instant answers to prayers now, but I understand that is part of growing up with God. There comes a point where God says: “Do you love the things I can give you, or will you love Me even without them?” So I would say that my choices to believe in God and to become a Catholic were very ‘scientific’ decisions.

Why does the Universe exist? There are three ways of answering that question. One is to say it had no beginning and has ‘always’ existed so it doesn’t need a reason. Another is to say that ‘God made it’ – but any small child will then ask, ‘Who made God?’. The third is to come up with a scientific reason why a universe can start existing – and because the universe contains everything that exists, that’s a problem of creating something from nothing. For the last 100 years, science has studied ways of creating ‘something from nothing’, which happens as part of what we call quantum mechanics. At the level of individual atoms, the universe is fuzzy, and for a very short moment of time, particles can come into existence and then disappear again. This is called the ‘Casimir Effect’ and although it sounds strange, it can be measured in a laboratory. We have demonstrated that mathematical truth is powerful enough to make things start existing. It’s not such a large leap after that to imagine that mathematical truth can make something exist which doesn’t disappear in a fraction of a second, too! So as a scientist, I would say that it is Truth which makes the Universe exists – but as a believer, I would say that Truth is another name for God.

Now, did God have to nudge the Universe as it grew and developed to produce what we see today? Did God have to set the laws of physics just right so stars would have time to shine for millions of years? Did God nudge the origins of life on earth or the development of human beings? I don’t know. I believe that God CAN intervene and work miracles. But the history of science tells me of many examples where we first said “That step in the history of a star or a species is so unlikely that only God could make it happen” – and then we discovered something we didn’t know before which gives an explanation with no need for God’s help! So I will never rush to say “God is the answer!” when faced with a difficult science problem.

There are some Christians who find it difficult to accept all that science tells us. If you believe every word in the Bible is literally true, then you quickly run into problems with science. When you add up the ages of everyone in the Old Testament, our world seems to be about 6,000 years old; the scientific evidence says 4,600,000,000. Archaeologists say human beings have been around for 300,000 years and in Europe for 40,000 years. Of course God COULD have created the world 6,000 years ago making it look like it had been around for millions of years already; without a time machine to go back and check, there’s no way to tell the difference! But as Catholics, we are not required to take every word in the Bible literally. We can read the Book of Nature as well as the Book of Scripture – God speaks through both. Even St John Paul II said that they theory of evolution was ‘more than a hypothesis’, recognising that it was the best scientific explanation for the origin of human life. But that doesn’t stop me believing that God adds a spiritual essence, a soul, to each new human being, and that soul continues to live after the body dies.

I no longer work in scientific research; my ministry as a priest requires my full attention to other duties. But I still identify myself as a ‘scientist’ and I rejoice that there are priests who do work as full-time scientists, some of them running the Vatican Observatory!

How do you talk about God to a modern person? What is actually more important – to know God by intellect or to have a living experience with Him?

Let’s start with the word ‘God’. I’ve learned, in my ministry as a priest, that this word, this name, means different things to different people. Often I am approached by a young adult who went to Catholic School, and now wants to have a baby baptised. I ask, “Tell me the story of where God is in your life?” Usually the person will say: “I got baptised, made my first communion, went to a Catholic School, maybe got confirmed” – and I say, “I’m glad the Church was such a big part of your life. But where was God?”

Now one of two things will happen. Half the time, the young adult tells me about church again. For these young people, the word “God” is just a label for “church stuff”. The other half will say: “God is always there. When I am sad, he makes me happy. When I need help, I pray.” That’s better, because at least they know God is a Someone. But they haven’t realised that Jesus came to help us know God as our Father; they don’t know that God asks us to connect with Him at Mass because he loves us. I once spoke to a young Polish woman and asked: “When you were confirmed, didn’t they tell you that God was a Father who loves you?” Her eyes opened wide – and for the first time, she heard it and believed. I’m sure they don’t forget to tell children that message in Poland – but it was only on that day that she was ready to hear it.

In the same way, as a child I learned many stories from the Bible, but I didn’t ask whether I believed they were true until my grandmother died. Then, suddenly, it mattered to know the answer! Now, when I work with children preparing for First Communion, I always say: “You’ve learned lots of stories from the Bible. But do you believe Jesus rose from the dead? Do you think he really came to help us know God Our Father?” Until it becomes real – until it becomes personal – our faith isn’t a living thing. So absolutely, it is important to not just know God in our minds but connect with him in our hearts.

In philosophy, there are many so-called ‘proofs’ that God exists. They use logic to show that there must be a First Cause, an Unmoved Mover, a Ground of all Being. It makes sense that to avoid an infinite chain of cause and effect, something or someone must be at the beginning. For some people, this kind of logic is enough to come to know that God exists. But this kind of God, a powerful Truth that summons all things into existence, can feel quite cold. Jesus came to show us that God is not an impersonal, mathematical, force but a loving person who longs to know us as his children.

In my time as a Catholic, I’ve met many people who have had a deep emotional experience of becoming aware of God’s love – a personal love for them alone. I’ve never had that kind of experience; my journey is an intellectual one of knowing that Jesus speaks truth and so I am certain that God is present as a loving Father. I might never experience that love emotionally until I die and reach heaven – but the knowledge that it is true is enough to commit my life to the work of a priest and of a missionary.

Jesus said “Go and make disciples of all nations.” My calling is to invite people to listen to Jesus and follow him, trusting that this will give them a beautiful life not only in this world but for eternity. Not everyone accepts the message – but Jesus gave us the Parable of the Sower to warn us that many of our seeds will fall on ground which is not ready. To any modern person willing to listen, I will say: Seek the Lord and you will find him – but be warned, this is a life changing experience. So God says “seek with all your heart”. If you are ready for your life to be transformed, dare to do what I did. Say: God if you’re there, show me!

Imagine That!

Homily to Members of Sion Community and D-Weekend and Livestream Participants for The 12th Sunday of Year A.

Today, I’ve got good news, and better news.

The good news is that today’s message comes with pictures.

The even better news is that, to avoid any technical failure, the images aren’t going to use technology. Instead, they’re going to be in your head.

Did you know your mind has a special part for generating images? That’s why it’s called your imagination!

So I’d like to invite you to use your imagination today to picture a sad story and a happy story – and I’m going to start with this one. So see what image comes into your head as you hear this story.

Very sadly this week, a 14-year-old died. He’d achieved a great deal during his short life. He was quite famous. He was ginger, and usually wore a colourful scarf – in fact he was quite good looking. He’d helped a homeless man find the confidence to put his life back together, and he’d become a media star.

I’m going to come back to this story later – just to help you remember, I’ll tell you know that the 14-year-old’s name was Bob. The second story is from my own life, and it’s something that happened when I was 22. Back then, I was a full-time research scientist working on my doctorate. Because the Government wanted scientists to be good at marketing their discoveries, I was sent on a two-week long business school. So there I was, with around fifty other science students who I’d never met before, and we were put into small groups.

So now, in your imagination, picture me with a tutor and four or five other students, people I didn’t know at all. The tutor has just asked each of us to share something unexpected about ourselves. I’ve come up with an idea, but I’m not sure whether I should share it or not. I mean, what would these other science students think of me if I said something like this? Would they tease me? Would they think I’m not a proper scientist at all?

Oh, you want to know what I was thinking of? OK. It’s this. About three years earlier, I’d won a college prize for an essay I wrote. It wasn’t about science – it was about religion. My essay was about places where people claimed the Virgin Mary had appeared with messages for people. But could I, should I, dare I, share with these other students my belief that Mary the Mother of Jesus was alive in heaven and could appear to people on earth? Imagine yourself in my position. Would you do it? Or would you try to think of something safer?

I did it!

And you know what? It was OK! The other students, and the tutor, were fascinated and they asked me lots of questions. I don’t think any of them were religious believers, but they were really open minded. In fact, some of them said they thought what I had done was really cool!

Sometimes we find support in unexpected places. There again, sometimes the people we think would support us, don’t. Maybe we’re at a Catholic school but if we put our hand up to answer a question in Religious Education, we get mocked by our friends. If we make a comment on social media that backs up our Catholic faith, we might get flamed for it – and not only by unbelievers but by other Christians who think we’re being too hard or too soft! Jeremiah hoped the Jewish community would support him, but they threw him into a pit!

Now, back to Bob, with his colourful scarf. Do you have a picture in your head of this likeable, ginger, 14-year-old? How many legs has he got? You’re probably thinking “two”. But hang on, I asked the question, and Bob has died at 14 so maybe he had an accident? One leg? None? Wrong again. The famous Bob who died this week had four legs! He was a ginger cat, the inspiration behind the film A Street Cat Named Bob.

How did a cat become famous? It was through James Bowen, a recovering drug addict, who had been sleeping rough on the streets of London. He met Bob, a homeless cat, just after being given a flat to live in. But Bob wouldn’t stay close to the flat – he kept following James everywhere, and that’s what made the difference.

Imagine what it’s like, trying to earn a living on the streets of London. Maybe you’re busking with a guitar. Maybe you’re trying to sell the Big Issue magazine. How many people are going to ignore you? How many will stop to talk to you? How many will actually treat you like a human being?

Now imagine doing these same things with a ginger cat – plus his bright striped scarf – perched on your neck or next to your loudspeaker. Suddenly the passers-by who aren’t interested in you are very interested in your cat! This attracted the attention of a local newspaper, and then a literary agent who said “You should write a book about Bob!” which led to a film and Bob’s worldwide fame.

James Bowen was blessed to meet Bob when he did – it gave him the focus he needed to turn his life around. Our job is to look out for people who aren’t so lucky. Jesus saw something in people who might have been ignored. If we’re disciples, if we learn from Jesus, we have to do the same. Is there someone in our school class or workplace that nobody wanted to talk to? What are the chances that no-one’s bothered ringing this person to see how lockdown is going for them? You could be the person who rings!

This is where our imagination gets in the way. We might imagine if we reach out to the least popular person we know – or if we’re seen to take church too seriously – we might lose some friends. But we’re using our imagination the wrong way. Imagine the last day of your life, when you get to meet Jesus face to face. What’s going to happen? Is Jesus going to shake his head sadly and say “You didn’t stand up for me – and you didn’t help the person you know gets left out?” Or is Jesus going to smile and say “Well done! Come in and receive your reward!”

So now imagine what you could do today or tomorrow to make the world a better place. And don’t just imagine! Dare to make your dreams come true!

Holy Transfusion

Homily to Members of Sion Community and Livestream Participants for The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, Year A.

You must eat the flesh of the Son of Man, or you have no life within you!

But don’t panic. If you’ve already received Holy Communion once in your life, you’ve fulfilled the condition! This is why Holy Communion is regarded as one the three ‘sacraments of initiation’ and in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, communion is normally given to infants at the time of their baptism! Unlike Baptism and Confirmation, Holy Communion isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime gift. Like any other food, it is meant to nourish us continually; Pope Francis has called it ‘Medicine for the Soul’. (Evangelii Gaudium 47)

How often should we come to Holy Communion? Our Lord didn’t say – though he did teach us to pray for our daily bread, or in one possible translation, our ‘supersubstantial bread’.  The little bits of evidence we have from the first three centuries of Christianity suggest that Mass was only celebrated on Sundays and on the anniversary of the death of significant martyrs. But we also know that sometimes people took the Blessed Sacrament home so they could have communion on other days, too. (See for instance this letter by the 4th Century’s St Basil of Caesarea.)

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, suddenly there were lots of full-time priests so it became normal to have Mass celebrated every day. But then, as the centuries went by, worshippers became more and more worried about whether they were holy enough to receive communion; many thought that if they just went to Mass and saw the Body of Christ lifted high, that would be enough. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was invented to prolong that moment of being able to gaze upon the Body of Jesus. In the year 1215 it was necessary for the Fourth Lateran Council to make a law binding on all Catholics that they must take Holy Communion at least once a year, around Easter time – that became called the ‘Easter Duty’.

In this year, 2020, most of us have been unable to make our Easter Duty – indeed, Cardinal Nichols has made it clear that we are excused us from that requirement. Instead, many of us have discovered, or rediscovered, the tradition of making a spiritual communion. But what is a ‘spiritual communion’ and what does the Church say about it?

We know that in normal circumstances, God expects us to make use of the sacraments of the Church. There is something physical about each of the sacraments – they make use of bread, wine, water, oil, or the laying-on-of-hands. Even with confession, the priest stretching his hand in the direction of the penitent is understood to be part of the sacrament, which is why the Vatican hasn’t allowed confession by phone or videoconference. In each of the sacraments, there is a promise that when we carry out the physical action and say the right words with the right meaning, God has given us an absolute guarantee that some gift of grace will be given. A child is baptised or confirmed; bread and wine does become the Body and Blood of Christ; a man does become a bishop, priest or deacon.

But we also know that nothing can come between us and the love of God, and that includes the social distancing which prevents us connecting through these physical rituals. Suddenly we’ve rediscovered the importance of baptism of desire, of an act of perfect contrition, and of the possibility of making a ‘spiritual communion’.

Does the Catholic Church say anything officially about spiritual communion? Yes, but you need to do a little digging to find it! In 1983, St John Paul II wrote a letter about the importance of priestly ministry in the church, which included these words:

Individual faithful or communities who … are deprived of the holy Eucharist … do not thereby lack the grace of the Redeemer. If they are intimately animated by a desire for the sacrament and united in prayer with the whole Church, and call upon the Lord and raise their hearts to him, by virtue of the Holy Spirit they live in communion with the whole Church, the living body of Christ, and with the Lord himself. Through their desire for the sacrament in union with the Church, no matter how distant they may be physically, they are intimately and really united to her and therefore receive the fruits of the sacrament.

What does this mean when translated from Vaticanese into plain English? ‘Spiritual Communion’ is the equivalent to receiving nourishment from an intravenous drip! We can receive the same benefit – what the Church calls the ‘fruits’ – but without the physical experience of eating, touching, tasting, feeling. When we physically receive Holy Communion, we can say that Jesus is sacramentally present within our bodies for a short time, until the matter of the Host is dissolved in our stomachs. When we make an act of Spiritual Communion, we don’t make Jesus sacramentally present – but we receive the same blessings that we would receive if he were.

There are two guarantees of God’s help attached to the Eucharist. The first is that if a validly ordained priest offers the prayer of consecration over bread and wine, intending to ‘do what the Church does’, that bread and wine will certainly become the Body and Blood of Christ, regardless of the sinfulness of the priest. The second is that when any person receives Holy Communion worthily, they receive fruits including forgiveness of lesser sins, help to resist temptation, and an increase in capacity to love others.

What must we do to receive these fruits? First, we must desire Holy Communion – as I know those of you joining us online surely do. Second, we must ‘unite in prayer with the whole church’. We are most closely united when we join those at a distance in real time – which is why the Vatican asked us to connect to live, not recorded, broadcasts of the Easter Triduum. Finally, we must ‘raise our hearts to the Lord’. To do this, we must have first examined our hearts for sin, lest we eat the Lord’s body unworthily – which is why almost every Mass begins with a penitential rite. But if our hearts are right, we must simply cry out to Jesus, ‘draw close to me’ – or in the words of the prayer we have shared many times in these weeks, ‘Come to me, O my Jesus, since I, for my part, am coming to You!’