Messengers from Heaven!

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time(The Sunday designated for the National Collection in support of Walsingham.)

What would you do if someone came from Heaven with a message for you?

A quick look around the world shows us what most Catholics do when a message comes from heaven – they build a shrine and go there on pilgrimage. “This must be a holy place, God’s messenger has been there! If we go, good blessings will rub off on us!”

Well, maybe.

Suppose you have a granny who lives in Australia – or Manila – or Kerala. But something wonderful happens! Granny comes to stay with you in Cardiff for a whole six months. It’s really lovely having granny around. But those six months come to an end, and granny is getting ready to go home. Before she goes, she sits down in your living room and makes a little speech: “My dear grandchildren! I have to leave you soon. I only ask two things of you: ring me once a month, and do try to make up after the quarrel you had with your cousins last year.”

After granny flies home, you miss her so much, that you decorate the guest room she stayed in with lots of pictures of her, and spray around the perfume she always wore. Now and then you lie on the bed she slept on, and remember her fondly. But after a few months, life gets so busy, that you stop ringing granny every month, and as for that quarrel with your cousins – no, it’s just too painful to go there, so you never sort things out.

So if that happens, have you done what granny wanted?

This is the trap we so easily fall into. There are many places around the world where people claim that the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared. Some of these claims have been declared believable by the local bishop or by the Vatican. But often we put all our energy into saying, “How awesome, Our Lady has been here,” and none into following the instructions she gave.

Now it’a true that in some places, the main message has been about establishing a place of pilgrimage: Lourdes in France for the sick, or Banneux in Belgium for the poor. But in other places, the message is one calling us to daily prayer. 99 years ago in Fatima, Our Lady asked us to pray the rosary every day for peace in the world. Then, the main threat was from the military powers engaging in the First World War; today, we face global terrorism; but the need for peace is just as important. In Nicaragua, Our Lady want further, saying to the visionary of Cuapa, “Make Peace. Don’t ask Our Lord for peace because, if you do not make it, there will be no peace.

In Venezuela, Our Lady appeared to the Servant of God, Maria Esperanza, often between 1976 and 2004. Among her many messages, she requested “prayer for the church, for priests and the conversion of sinners; study of Sacred Scripture; frequent Confession and Communion; and charity, solidarity, and social justice for all.”

As members of the Catholic Church, we are under no obligation to believe in any particular apparition of Our Lady. Even when the Vatican has said something is worthy of belief, we are free to take it or leave it. But we are not free to swoon over the shrine while missing the message – to do that would be the height of hypocrisy.

It’s much rarer for visionaries to report visions of Our Lord himself. Most famously, he showed his Sacred Heart to St Margaret Mary Alacoque in 1674, and spoke of his Divine Mercy to St Faustina Kowalska in the early 20th Century. But of course the greatest apparitions were the ones to St Mary Magdalen and the Apostles, demonstrating that he has risen from the dead.

Our Lord was setting us a puzzle in today’s Gospel, imagining Abraham saying “If they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.” Today’s Lazarus was a character in a parable – but we know that Our Lord raised another Lazarus from death, for a human lifetime, and himself returned to show he had entered into the new and eternal life which awaits us all. These apparitions are not given to us to convince us of anything. Rather, they are given to remind us of those good spiritual practices we so easily neglect or avoid.

In today’s letter to St Timothy, we receive advice which applies to all of us: “you must aim to be saintly and religious, filled with faith and love, patient and gentle. Fight the good fight of the faith and win for yourself the eternal life to which you were called … I put to you the duty of doing all that you have been told, with no faults or failures, until the Appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

That is the only apparition which matters. At the Second Coming, or when we appear before Him for judgement at the end of our earthly lives, Our Lord will appear to us, with a cloud of saints attending upon him. Our Lady will not be impressed if we have visited Fatima but not prayed the rosary, or if we have visited Lourdes, but never repented of the sickness in our hearts.

So what’s your favourite apparition? Do you know what message is associated with it? If you do know, be sure to live out the message. And if you don’t know, make it your business to find out!

Positive Energy

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time(The Sunday following the World Day of Care for Creation – resources from the Vatican, CAFOD, Season of Creation and the global Catholic Climate Movement.)

“It is hard enough to work out what is on earth; who then can discover what is in the heavens?”A wind turbine

Please Lord, I can!

As many of you know, I spent four years studying what is in the heavens, pursuing research in astrophysics at Cardiff University. We live in an amazing age! During the last month we’ve started receiving images from the latest spaceprobe to arrive at Jupiter and discovered that the next-nearest star to our Sun, Proxima Centauri, has a planet orbiting it in a zone which makes liquid water possible!

We also understand Planet Earth better than we’ve ever done before. We don’t have all the answers – right now many scientists are puzzling over whether microbeads in our shower gel are harmful to creatures in the sea – but we do know enough to be worried about humanity’s impact on our planet.

The earth is getting warmer, ice is melting at our poles, and that has consequences for people who live on islands and coastlands. Crops won’t grow in the same places, in the same way, that they would a generation ago. Do we fully understand the way everything in our environment interacts? No. But do we understand enough to be worried? Yes.

Last year, in his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis said that “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”

Now, I could give a whole lecture on what’s in the Pope’s document, and another on what we can do to help our planet, but our time is short, so I am going to pick just one issue today: Energy.

Almost all the energy we use on Planet Earth comes from sunshine. Coal, oil and natural gas come from plant material, plants which captured sunshine over hundreds of thousands of years, but which we are burning up in decades. When we burn our “fossil fuels”, this produces carbon dioxide, which is a major cause of global warming.

The sun also heats our atmosphere, causing wind, which causes waves; and it evaporates water, which falls as rain, enabling rivers to drive waterwheels. The gravity of the sun and moon cause tides to ebb and flow twice a day. We can even use solar panels to catch the sun’s energy directly. But sunshine, tides, wind and waves aren’t always there when we need them. There are ways of storing large amounts of energy for later, but these aren’t cheap because they need big-scale engineering. At Dinorwig, the “electric mountain” in North Wales, water is pumped from a low lake to a higher one whenever there is surplus electricity to be stored.

Why should we care? The decisions we make today about energy affect our children, and our children’s children. Today’s psalm reminds us that God sees human life come and go, generation after generation. In the Gospel, Our Lord reminds us that we should always take stock of our resources before starting a project. We also need to think about the humans who will inherit this earth long after we awake to the bright morning of heaven. Will we leave them enough oil to make plastic and medicines, or will we have burned it all in our cars and power stations?

CAFOD have reminded us often in recent years that we should “live simply, sustainably, and in solidarity with the poor”. None of us can solve the problem of climate change on our own, but if every person on earth chose to make one small change each, seven billion small changes add up to one huge change for the better!

So what can we do? The good news is that some things we can do won’t cost us money, only time and a little effort – in fact, saving energy equals saving money! Over the last couple of years, you’ll have seen the houses around St Philip Evans Church covered in scaffolding. Local flats were offered external wall insulation – and we advertised the offer in our parish newsletter. One of the first things I did on moving into St Philip Evans Presbytery was to arrange for cavity wall insulation to be pumped into the walls of the house, and for thicker insulating rolls to be laid in the loft – and I didn’t have to pay a penny for it! You can find lots of ideas to help you online from the Energy-Saving Trust.

For those of us who can afford to do so, we can use our money to help drive change. “Green energy” does cost a little more, because of the need to pick up the slack when the sun doesn’t shine. But the more people who insist on having green energy, the more the power companies will invest in the technology. Yes, this means that our landscape will change. When I drive to visit my parents in Llanelli, I see more and more wind turbines being installed along the Neath-Port Talbot coastline. I don’t welcome the blot on the landscape, but I know it’s part of the price we pay for our energy-hungry lifestyle. Earlier this year, 16 Catholic Dioceses in England and Wales agreed to come together to buy 100% green energy, and by belonging to this large consortium, our parish now runs on green energy at an affordable price. If you are willing to pay a little more for your power bills, you can switch to a 100% renewable provider, too; and if you have some money to invest in making long term savings, you could even consider installing solar panels.

The way we buy our energy is a moral issue. The choices we make affect our neighbours in space and in time – those who live at risk of rising sea levels, and our future generations of consumers. Our Lord today challenges you to give up all your possessions! I’m only challenging you to save energy and buy greener energy. As crosses go, this is quite an easy one to carry!

 

If you only knew!

CCRW-roundel

Homily given at Sunday Mass at the Weekend Conference run by the National Service Committee for Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Wales. 

“If you only you knew what God could do…”

Is that a threat or a promise?

Given the readings we’ve just heard from Scripture, we might not be too keen to find out what God can do. The Gospel has just warned us that we must enter by the narrow gate, because the easy way leads to destruction. Before that, the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that God disciplines his children. The first reading was a little more optimistic, reminding us that God will gather in “outsiders” – but if you’re an “insider” there’s little comfort for you in the Gospel!

As we pray together at this year’s conference, I sense that we’re feeling more vulnerable than usual. We’re conscious of all the uncertainties yet to be resolved around Britain’s ongoing relationship with Europe. We have a sense of the church being under attack, following the slaughter of a Catholic priest in France. We’re praying for more personal concerns, which might never make the news headlines but matter greatly in our families and in our communities. So in the midst of all our pain and confusion, what can God do for us?

God can forgive our sins.

It’s easy to hear the lesson from Hebrews and mishear the message as “God wants to punish us”. In fact, God seems slow to punish throughout the Bible. Even in the beginning, Adam and Eve were told that they would “certainly die” if they ate the forbidden fruit; but since the story has Adam live for another 900 years, death took its time coming. Ezekiel warned the wicked that they would die because of their sins – but if they repented they would live. God allows time for repentance rather than enacting punishment. Our faith assures us that on the Cross, Jesus accepted the price of all our sins, so that no Christian needs to be punished by God for anything.

What Hebrews actually says is that God can discipline us. “Discipline” comes from the same root as “disciple”, and reminds us that God wants to train us to be more like Jesus. The Holy Spirit does this by stirring up our conscience to recognise when our choices have not been in line with God’s will. God disciplines us through the gift of guilt.

Yes, guilt is a truly wonderful gift! If it succeeds in causing us to repent, we can receive total forgiveness of all our sins! Because this is the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wants us to celebrate the open door of God’s mercy in a special way, making a pilgrimage to a Door of Mercy if we haven’t done so already.

What else can God do for us?

God can love us just as we are!

Yesterday we were reminded that Jesus “stands at the door and knocks”, but if we’re ashamed of our untidy lives, we fear to let him in. During the last fortnight, I’ve been on holiday, and I’ve visited several friends whose houses were in the midst of DIY or are home to small children. These houses were far from spick-and-span, but did that matter? No! I enjoyed spending time with my friends, and had they said “don’t come, the house is too messy”, I would have had a lonely holiday and they would have missed out on a happy visit. Our pride can be the greatest obstacle to experiencing what God can do for us. The same Jesus who spent time with tax collectors and prostitutes is not ashamed to spend time with you. It’s not for nothing that we have a song called Come As You Are.

What else can God do for us?

God can heal our bruises! 

Many of us carry wounds from our attempts to love others or to work for the church. Sometimes these wounds are self-inflicted, because we’ve had unreasonable hopes or set up impossibly high standards for ourselves. Other times, we’ve been hurt by our church leaders, by our friends, or by our family members. We may feel betrayed, rejected, or ignored. Sometimes that’s because other people really have treated us badly, or accused us falsely. At other times, it’s because we see other people through our own prejudices.

We keep falling into a well-known trap. We expect other people to meet our needs, and call on God to fix the flaws in our own character. But God only offers us insight and strength for us to choose to change our own character, and asks us to use our own resources to meet the needs of other people. It’s not easy for any of us to change a long-established pattern in our own behaviour, yet we pray hard for God to change the heart of a stubborn relative or, dare I say it, a parish priest who doesn’t jump to support charismatic prayer. Above all, we’re called to forgive everyone, whether we think they deserve it or not. That includes forgiving ourselves, for not being perfect, and forgiving God – not for doing anything wrong, but for graciously refusing to fit into our limited ideas of what God should do for us.

There’s an old saying that when we point the finger at someone, three fingers point back at us. So think of any relationship in your life which currently feels like a trial. Now ask yourself: “What’s my own contribution to making this relationship difficult?” What could you do differently to conduct that relationship with kindness, respect, and Christian love? Remember that we do not offer these things because the other person has earned them, but because Christ lives hidden inside every human person, however awkward.

On Friday evening, Steve, our new NSC Chair, had a sense in prayer of someone’s arms being upheld. That might remind us of Moses, being supported by Joshua and Caleb when he could no longer hold his arms aloft by his own strength. But it also points us towards the instruction in this letter to the Hebrews. When the Lord helps us see that our behaviour has not been great, we are not to throw ourselves a “pity party”. Rather, we must make a decision, a personal decision, to “hold up our limp arms, steady our trembling knees and smooth out the path we tread” – then each one of us shall receive God’s promise that what was injured will grow into health.

So enter by the narrow door. It’s a small door, and there’s no room for the baggage you’re carrying. There’s no room to carry a grudge against anyone else. There’s no room to carry your dreams for how you wish other people to treat you. There’s no room for the patterns of behaviour you know God is nagging you to leave behind. There’s not even room for the false god you’d like to carry with you – the god who would guarantee perfect health and freedom from difficulties for you and your loved ones. There’s only room to squeeze through to the presence of the true God, who allows you to be tested, though not more than you can bear.

If only you knew what you could do for God! Then you would rush to do what God asks. Each one of you is offering God something unique and irreplaceable, the gift of the love that God can bring into the world when you choose to become the very best version of yourself. The woman of Samaria hastened to tell the people of the village that she had met the Messiah. When Jesus frees you of your burdens, you too will rush to tell your friends and family of your new-found freedom in Christ. You may not even have to use words!

“If you only you knew what God could do…”

Is that a threat or a promise?

It’s a promise! It’s a promise that God will discipline us, that is teach us awareness of our own need to change for the better, so that we can leave behind whatever clings to us and enter through the narrow gate. So don’t be afraid. It is because God loves you too much to leave you as you are, that he invites you to this journey of transformation. As St Catherine of Siena said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world ablaze!”

Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News!

Acknowledgement: Many of the ideas in this sermon come from reviewing the Freedom in Christ Discipleship Course.

Inheritance

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Continuing our series on the Family, based on Amoris Laetitia.

A document headed There’s a story about a saint who decided to spend some time alone, praying, on a high mountain. At first, his prayers were going well, but then the sun began to set and he started to feel the cold. In his prayers he started complaining to God about the discomfort he was feeling.

Suddenly, he had a thought. He took off the cloak he was wearing and laid it down at his feet. For as long as he could endure the chill, he worshipped God. Then, when he could stand it no more, he picked up the cloak at his feet and cried out, “Thanks be to God, there’s a cloak here to keep me warm!”

That saint understood that everything we have is an undeserved gift from God. That’s an important attitude, which vaccinates us from a terrible spiritual disease: consumerism!

In the nine 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 value of the house will have to be transformed into healthcare fees – or a survey might find an old mineshaft under its foundations and decimate the value.

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 when it comes to questions of inheritance, the Old Testament preacher Qoheleth has nailed it. The only person who earned the wealth will one day die, so inevitably it will go so someone who hasn’t earned it. That’s why it’s a big mistake to ask whether an inheritance is fair. Inheritances are intrinsically generous. So the only real complaint we can make is that the will-maker was not as generous towards us as we 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 your word, which is a different issue altogether.

St Paul reminds us that we must live according to the values of heaven. We must not lie to one another. We must let go of desires for unearned wealth, and for inappropriate sexual relationships – if these things take hold of our life, they become false gods. Yes, these things tempt us. But we have free will, and the more we choose the values of heaven, the more each one of us becomes a living image of Jesus Himself.

So what choices might we need to make? Remember, when it comes to any inheritance, it’s not your money. You might have had a certain expectation. Maybe the will-writer even told you they were leaving you something, but even then, treat it as an undeserved gift. Don’t let it possess you.

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. Don’t rush to law to sue for what is yours – write to the executor and explain the terms under which you will lend them your share of the inheritance for a reasonable period. Love and bless your adversary!

There again, perhaps you are arguing with other family members because you’re the one holding the lion’s share of the inheritance, and other members of your family feel hard done by. 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.

Pope Francis, in his great letter on the Joy of Love, doesn’t say anything specific about wills and inheritance, but he does mention the dangers of consumerism. In this “buy what you want” age, we are tempted to only pursue relationships which satisfy us, to fear the economic consequences of having children, and to have unrealistic expectations of living a life free of responsibility for others. At worst, we lose the ability to be tender towards others and to recognise true beauty.

One last thought. If you’re fretting about a gift you haven’t received, give something away as soon as possible. If that feels too hard for you to do – how can you expect anyone else to give anything to you?


Reading Amoris Laetitia: all references are to paragraph numbers.

  • We are called to hard work: 23-26
  • The dangers of consumerism: 39-44, 127, 135

Family: What’s really important?

Two parents and three children silhouetted against a twilight skyHomily at St Philip Evans, for the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Continuing our series on the Family, based on Amoris Laetitia.

Last week, I met a young mother who’d spent a year studying Catholic teaching on the family. I asked her what the one most important message was that Catholic preachers should share. Her answer? “The best way to love your children is to love your spouse.”

Today’s Bible readings lead us into the fraught area of family relationships. Martha is at odds with her sister, Mary, and tries to draw Jesus Himself into the conflict. They also remind us that God loves families. God’s unexpected promise to Abraham resulted in the birth of a son, Isaac, grandfather of the 12 children who would be the ancestors of the Israelites. Jesus was born to the family of Mary and Joseph, and befriended the household of another Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

In families, we can find amazing love. And in families, we will experience annoying strife. Martha falls into the trap of putting her own goals first – getting the housework done. Jesus points out that Mary has chosen what is truly valuable. In our own age, Pope Francis has written about family tensions and suggests how we can find joy. What he has written is especially important for relationships between husbands and wives, but much applies also to every group of family members who live under one roof.

Within families, we must use the words “please”, “thanks”, and “sorry” every day. There are no perfect families; but as we address together our limits, defects and imperfections, we grow in our ability to love and can hope that “the best is yet to come”.

One big question young people ask is why two people should bother to get married rather than just living together. Marriage is a declaration that two people wish to start a new social unit: independent of their parents but taking responsibility for each other. Marriage allows each spouse to declare in a public ceremony that they have found their partner to be worthy of unconditional love! More than that, there’s strong evidence that a couple is much more likely to stay together if the partners have made public promises to each other.

Pope Francis notes that lovers are looking for something permanent. Children and friends of married couples long for their love to endure. All humans have an instinct for sealing a permanent bond; for us as Christian believers, we see that such a vow is an image of God’s faithfulness to us. Even so, the Pope reminds us to be realistic: no human marriage can perfectly reflect the love of the Blessed Trinity.

It’s a good thing to grow old together, to care for one another’s needs. This needs a commitment to unselfishness. For many young people, this is a scary thought – if I make a lifelong promise, am I closing off my other options? Yes – but consider the alternative! If I’m not willing to make a lifelong promise, can I reasonably expect another person to always be there for me? No. Marriage isn’t always pleasurable, but there can be joy experienced even amid sorrow as couples deal with ups and downs, growing ever closer in friendship.

Pope Francis knows that the way we do family is changing. In past ages, it would have been normal for a husband to go out to work and make the big decisions, and for a wife to do all the housework. Now, the Pope notes, there’s a more equal sharing of responsibility, and better communication between husband and wife. And communication is key! Mary knew that the most important thing on that day was to sit and listen to Jesus. We too must make time to listen to God – but we must also take time to listen to the important people in our lives.

One great sadness for me as a priest comes when women speak with me about the ups and down of their married life. I often ask whether their husband would be willing to go on a marriage enrichment weekend – or if they are facing serious relationship problems, whether they have considered marriage counselling. The most common reply is “Oh no, my husband would never be willing to go to anything like that.” So just for a moment, I want to speak to the husbands present at this Mass:

As husbands, you have made a promise to love your wife. You cannot love your wife properly unless you take time to understand her needs. It’s natural for us as men to resist the idea that we need help with relationships. That little proud voice in our heads says: “Just give me time, I can figure it out!” But remember that Jesus, the perfect man, sacrificed his life for the Church. You, Christian husbands are called to put aside your pride whenever it gets in the way of making your marriage a great marriage. Men of God, I place before you a challenge: Before this day has ended, ask your wife whether she would like to go with you on a retreat for married couples. Or if you know there is some big unresolved issue between the two of you, ask her whether she would find it helpful to try marriage counselling. Husbands, the question you put to your wife today might just be the best one since you asked: “Will you marry me?”

In any important relationship, we must take time to deeply listen to one another. No matter how much you think you’re in the right, affirm the other person’s right to have their own perspective – indeed, welcome the fact that they see things differently. Don’t raise awkward ideas needlessly, or speak in a tone of voice which could cause offence – and deal with the most painful issues sensitively.

How did Jesus resolve this family dispute? He asked Martha: “What’s really important?” The young mother I met wanted husbands and wives to know “The best way to love your children is to love your spouse.” All of us are called to “love our neighbour”. So whatever is causing stress in your family right now, reflect on the Lord’s question: “What’s really important?” Choose your answer carefully, because you will be living with it for the rest of your life!


Further thoughts for this Blog and the Parish Bulletin:

Pope Francis reminds us that we should show affection and concern and concern for those we love – don’t regard the other person as a threat, or someone who needs to be proved wrong. Even something as simple as a glance can signal our care and concern; when this is not offered, when a person becomes “invisible”, they will act up, with a desire to be noticed! (On that note, I will make a pre-emptive apology. One of my personal weaknesses is tunnel vision – if I have ever walked past you in the supermarket without saying hello, please assume it’s because I was scanning the shelves for the next purchase, not because I noticed you and chose to blank you!)

We are called to be witnesses to the love of God and the goodness of marriage. Christians must be seen to be willing to lay down their lives for others, and forgive without condemning; parents do this instinctively.

Violence begets violence within families; each family should foster open and supportive relationships, good communication and shared activities. Broken families lose their ability to shield members from addictive temptations. We recognise the very difficult choices faced by single mothers in situations of poverty; we must not rush to criticise their life-choices but find ways to offer the healing message of the Gospel.

Migration disrupts or destroys families, especially when enforced by violence. The Church has a special call to work with migrants, and is especially concerned about Christians persecuted in the Middle East.

The Catholic Church offers useful resources to support marriage and family life in England and Wales: www.catholicfamily.org.uk – the American Bishops have some very useful resources too at www.foryourmarriage.org. If you are married to a person active in another Christian denomination, you will find support from other people who understand the joys and tensions of this situation at www.interchurchfamilies.org.uk.

If you are ready to go on a weekend which will enrich your marriage, WorldWide Marriage Encounter wwme.org.uk offers residential weekends and SmartLoving smartloving.org offers non-residential weekends or days. If you are feeling more ambitious and can devote six days, the Chemin Neuf community www.chemin-neuf.org.uk runs a “Cana Week” in South-West England each summer. Or if it’s simply not possible for you to go away at the moment, you can work through the REFOCCUS Marriage Enrichment programme from www.foccusinc.com at home.

If you are aware that there are more serious issues in your marriage which you need to address, Marriage Care can help: phone 0800 389 3801 for an appointment or visit www.marriagecare.org.uk. Retrouvaille www.retrouvaille.org is a mainly Catholic group offering retreats and day workshops for married couples in difficulty, and will be running a day in Hertfordshire on 16 September 2016. Finally, if you are not comfortable with the way your partner is treating you, but don’t know where else to turn, be aware that  there is a 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline which you can access on 0808 2000 247.


Reading Amoris Laetitia: all references are to paragraph numbers.

  • Marriages in difficulty: 38, 62, 231-252
  • Love in relationships: 89-119
  • Love in marriage: 27-29, 120-141
  • Passion, sexual violence, celibacy: 142-162
  • Violence, refugees, poverty 46, 49, 51

Building Believers

Homily at St Joseph’s, Guildford, for members of the Homegroups and participants in a recent Alpha course.

Readings: Acts 2:42-47 and Matthew 10:7-15.

“As you go, proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand.”

Last weekend, at Sunday Mass, we heard Jesus send 72 of his followers to announce his coming in the villages he was about to visit.

Tonight, he commands his 12 apostles to announce his message as they go along, and to stay in each town as long as they were welcome.

I’ve got good news for you. You don’t have to go anywhere. You’re already where God wants you to be – the Gospel has spread from Galilee to Guildford, from Samaria to Surrey! Sometimes, especially when we are open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, we will speak a life-changing word to a person we meet only once. But the most likely way we will spread the Good News of Jesus is with the people whose lives interact with ours on a daily basis.

Last Saturday night, I did something very Biblical. Jesus often ate with tax collectors. I sat down and had dinner with some bankers! It was the 25-year reunion of my undergraduate physics class. Lots of physics graduates end up working in finance. I, of course, took a slightly different route, first a PhD in astrophysics, then seminary, and now nine years working as a priest. Naturally I wore my clerical collar rather than a black tie – it’s a great conversation starter!

I was seated next to a student who’d started a year after me. She was from a Catholic family – her uncle was a priest – but she wasn’t a churchgoer. I’ll call her Shirley, though that’s not her name. We haven’t had a conversation for 20 years, and there we were, former physics students, now a banker and a Catholic priest.

Naturally, the conversation turned to religion. “But you can’t believe everything the Catholic Church teaches, surely, you’re a scientist trained to question evidence!”

“As a scientist, I know that our beliefs have to be based on evidence, and my beliefs are based on what Jesus actually said and did.”

“But you can’t believe that what’s in the Bible accurately represents Jesus, surely, people must have changed and spun it through the years?”

“We have accurate manuscripts, radio-carbon dated, to early centuries after Jesus. And I have spent time studying the different influences on the way the Bible is communicated so I can understand what is authentic!”

She wasn’t convinced. She was scandalised that I was willing to accept the written message of the Jesus-of-then, rather than my own sense of relating to the Jesus-of-now, as authoritative.

I’ll tell you something even more scandalous! Did you hear it in our reading from Acts? It didn’t say the first Christians devoted themselves to the teaching of Jesus – it said they met to listen to the teaching of the Apostles!

Jesus didn’t write a book. Our faith is not like Islam, which claims that an angel dictated God’s word directly. We believe that God lived among us, told stories, and instructed 12 chosen Apostles to pass on the message – authenticating what they did by giving them the power to heal and pass on the Holy Spirit to those who received their word!

Today, our Pope and our bishops are the successors of the apostles. From the vast store of Christian wisdom, they choose to issue documents highlighting those teachings which are most useful to our life in the 21st century. St John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis each bring their own eye to the needs of the church and the world. When I step up to the pulpit to preach, I come not with my own opinions, but with the Teaching of the Apostles.

There was a second thing that bothered Shirley at that black tie dinner – it was a comment I have also heard from many parents who have asked to have their children baptised. Surely you don’t have to go to Church to be a good person, to be a Christian?

Well, let’s look at what the first followers of Jesus did.

They were attentive to the Teaching of the Apostles. Now, in the Internet Age, you certainly don’t have to leave home to learn something, but here in Guildford, in the Homegroups, you meet to deepen your understanding of the Teaching of the Apostles. It is good, and human, to meet to discuss these things.

They met for the “breaking of bread”. I have yet to meet a parent who says “we don’t have to go to church to be a Christian” who claims to have celebrated the “breaking of bread” at home. It’s what we do in Church, the Eucharist with an ordained priest presiding.

From the writings of Justin Martyr, we know that in the early days of the Church, the Christians gathered to hear the Word of God read for as long as time allowed (don’t worry, I won’t do that tonight!) followed by a sermon. Then the minister presiding “gave thanks at considerable length” – I like to imagine a long, charismatic prayer at this point. Later, when the Roman Empire legalised the Church, they had to recruit a lot more priests quickly, and only then did Eucharistic Prayers get written down and circulated.

In the Homegroups, we don’t often meet for the breaking of bread, but it is good that we are here tonight, offering Mass to give thanks for the cycle of activity now ending and to pray for the year to come. I’d like to say a special word to those among you who are followers of Jesus, but not members of the Catholic Church.

It can seem awkward, on a night like this, that we do not invite other Christians to communion. But there is a certain integrity about that. Each of you will have your own reasons for belonging to the church you do belong to. When a Catholic minister holds up the consecrated Host and says “the body of Christ”, he or she is saying, abbreviated, “We believe that Jesus commanded the Church to ordain priests with the power to turn bread and wine into His true body and blood; we are one body in Christ because we receive Holy Communion and accept the teaching of the Apostles, given through the Bishop of Rome.” If you are tempted to ask “But why can’t I receive?” then ask yourself this: “Why am I not a Catholic?” The answer to both questions is the same. Yet we can worship together in all other aspects, sing the same songs, say the same prayers. Let us focus not on the one thing which divides us, but the many things which unite.

The early Christians were faithful “to the fellowship”. That’s another reason for coming to church. To have fellowship, we have to be together – stay-at-home Christians miss out. The very word “church” in Greek is “ekklesia” which means “the gathered community”, the “people called-out”. As a church, we are only as strong as our fellowship with one another.

It’s a sign of the strong community in the Homegroups that I am here with you 10 years after leaving Surrey. Yet in those 10 years, some of you have been in regular touch by post, and others have opened your dining tables, homes and spare rooms to me over the years. Don’t take that for granted – there are not many Catholic parishes in this country where you can find the same sense of community.

Now, community isn’t always easy. We don’t always get on with each other. But the Lord taught us to pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. Now, think of the church member you get on with least well. In your mind’s eye, picture the gates of heaven. Jesus is there, standing next to that person. Jesus says: “You can come in, as long as you don’t mind spending eternity together!”

The early Christians were faithful “to the prayers”. Now, that’s one thing you CAN do at home. But the Bible affirms the power of “two or three” praying together. Asking God for help is quite intuitive. But a true Christian knows who God is, and chooses to worship.

So here we are tonight, to worship. As we look back on the cycle of activities now closing, let’s give thanks. Thanks for the teaching received. Thanks for the Masses we have attended. Thanks for the friendships made and restored in our fellowship. Thanks for those prayers which have been answered.

Let’s also pray for the future, for the new year of life which will pick up from September. Let’s pray for a deepening of our commitment to understand the Teaching of the Apostles. Let’s pray for vocations, so we will always have priests for the breaking of bread – perhaps God is calling someone here tonight to the ministry of the altar, as a priest or deacon. Let’s pray for new members in our Homegroup Fellowship, and the courage to invite people to come – to come to know Christ, to come to Alpha, to join the Homegroups. And perhaps I could ask you to pray for “Shirley” – God knows her real name – that after our conversation, she begins to understand that the Gospels are trustworthy and that she is truly invited to be part of our church, with all its human flaws.

Jesus chose 72 and send them out around Israel. Jesus chose 12 and send them to the ends of the earth. Jesus chose YOU and sends you to Surrey. “As you go, proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven is close at hand.”

They were faithful to the Teachings of the Apostle, to the breaking of bread, to the fellowship and the prayers. Do this, and the same Holy Spirit who worked wonders through them will most surely work through you, too!

Psst. Mercy!

Homily at The Immaculate Conception, Tredegar, for the Vigil of Saints Peter & Paul, 2016.

This is the logo for the Holy Year of Mercy, which opens Dec. 8 and runs until Nov. 20, 2016. (CNS/courtesy of Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization) Christ carries a sinner over his shoulders as a shepherd would carry a sheep.

Psst! Have you heard the gossip?

There’s a man who’s been trying to destroy the Church from the outside.

First he shouted encouragement when they stoned that deacon, Stephen.

Then he asked for permission to go to Damascus and round up all the Christians there.

They say he was utterly merciless in the way he treated them.

 

Psst! Have you heard the gossip?

There’s a man who nearly destroyed the Church from the inside.

Jesus told him he had to forgive people who sinned against him. He tried to negotiate a limit of seven times. Jesus insisted on seventy times that!

He promised he would never abandon Jesus, but the night the Lord was arrested, he denied him three times.

They say he’s going back to his old career as a fisherman.

 

Psst! Have you heard the Gospel?

That Saul the Merciless, riding on the road to Damascus, had a vision. Jesus spoke to him.

They say he’s become an Apostle, teaching people about the love and mercy of Jesus!

Jesus changed his name to Paul, the little one.

Paul travelled all over the Mediterranean, starting churches and writing letters.

Little Paul was arrested, appealed to the Emperor, and was beheaded in Rome.

 

Psst! Have you heard the Gospel?

That Simon the Fisherman, the Rock who couldn’t hold firm, had a visit. Jesus took him for a walk on the beach. Three times he asked “Do you love me?” and Simon struggled to reply.

Jesus, the great forgiver, offered him another chance. This time Peter, the Rock, would lead the 12 disciples. Next time, Peter would not turn away, but would stand up for Jesus.

Simon Peter, first Pope and Fisher of Men, was crucified upside down in Rome.

 

Psst! Have you heard the Gospel?

That there’s someone in this Church, this evening, who doesn’t believe Jesus will really forgive them for something they’ve done wrong in their life?

But Jesus says: I forgave Paul, who persecuted the members of my body. I forgave Peter, who denied me three times. They both became leaders in my church, and great saints in heaven.

What kind of sinner are you, that you deserve forgiveness less than Peter or Paul?

 

My friends, I want to apologise to you. Our church is not always good at communicating what we stand for. Often we present ourselves as the Church of “Don’t Get Into Trouble”. It’s true that part of my job, and the task of every preacher, is to stand up and talk about right and wrong, because God wants us to choose good and keep away from evil. But we are also called to be the church of “Lord, Have Mercy”. The Church isn’t for perfect people. It’s for people who mess up and need to know they can make a new start. In the Name of Jesus of Nazareth, doubt no longer but believe. The one who had mercy on Peter and mercy on Paul offers you no less mercy.

Once Paul realised that Jesus was real, there was no stopping him; and as for Peter, when Jesus looked at him and saw a man who would be willing to say sorry, ask help, and start again every time he messed up, what did he say? On this rock I will build my Church.