How do I make disciples?

A talk for Youth 2000 Ireland.

How do we make disciples?

Brothers and sisters, I have good news for you. There are people in our churches today who passionately in love with Jesus, even though a few years ago they didn’t know Him at all.

How did this happen? Was it a pure miracle? Is it an accident? Or did it come from steps that are predictable and can be reproduced?

God’s grace is always a factor, and one that cannot be predicted. Jesus himself told the parable of the sower, explaining how some seed falls on good ground and bears fruit. Other seed struggles and fails to bear fruit for numerous reasons. Our job is to sow the seed.

But it’s also been said that we should pray as if everything depends on God, and then work as if everything depends upon us. There are lessons we can learn from people who’ve gone from no faith at all, to becoming passionate followers of Jesus. You might call these people “intentional disciples” because they’ve made a personal decision not only to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead, but to truly make him the Lord of their lives. 

In the USA, evangelical Christians fund full-time evangelists to work on university campuses. These evangelists set out to build relationships with students and invite them to Christian study groups. Don Everts and Doug Schaupp are two such ministers, Everts working in Colorado and Schaupp in California. From the start of the 1990s – around the time that Youth 2000 was born, in fact – they sensed a cultural shift: postmodern young people were no longer willing to accept claims about Jesus and Christianity made by authority figures; they now required authentic witnesses. A person like themselves, testifying to how Jesus had changed their life, would have much greater influence than Bible scholars or church leaders.

After working with more than 2000 young people making the journey into Christian faith, Everts and Schaupp noticed a very predictable pattern of conversion, one that played out time and time again in different ways in different lives. They wrote up what they found in this book, entitled “I once was lost.” They found that the common factors could be summed up as five steps or “thresholds”. From time to time they would review new conversion stories to see if any of them fail to fit this pattern, but so far Everts and Schaupp have found that the thresholds continue to be a reliable description of the path of conversion.

But is this true in a Catholic context? Yes! A laywoman and convert to Catholicism, Sherry Anne Weddell, works for the Siena Institute in Colorado, alongside Dominican priests. Sherry noticed how these same steps were present in the stories of the Catholic converts she was working with, and published what she found in her book Forming Intentional Disciples. I first read this book about 8 years ago, and when I did I shouted for joy as I turned the pages! At last, I felt someone understood my experience of being a convert to the Catholic faith! I’d been on lots of Youth 2000 retreats with their clear message that we called to follow Jesus, who was present in the Blessed Sacrament – but my experience of parish life, both as a layman and a priest, was that very few Catholics understood this. Rather, most of the Catholics I met were either concerned for helping people in poverty, with the Church as a convenient agency for organising the work, or concerned for keeping their local parish going as a place to meet in a building they loved. Neither group of Catholics seemed very keen on recruiting new members of the Catholic Church. Now this book provided the answer – most of these Catholics were on the journey of conversion, but they had not yet become disciples.

In her book, Sherry Weddell draws on the work of Everts and Schaupp, and discusses the same five thresholds of discipleship in a Catholic context. In other work and conferences, she notes that the journey of conversion doesn’t end with becoming a disciple, but continues as each member finds their role within the church. Today I’d like to summarise this teaching by introducing you to seven stages of spiritual growth in the journey of making disciples.

These apply both to a church-going Catholic becoming more intentional in their commitment, and a person making the journey from another religion to Catholicism. It is useful for anyone who wishes to make disciples to have a working knowledge of the thresholds – and more importantly, what is most likely to nudge a person hovering at one threshold towards the next. Based on interviews with hundreds of priests, Weddell estimates that only around 5% of Catholics in a typical parish have become intentional disciples.

The first step requires a person to establish a relationship of trust with Christ, the Church, a Christian believer or something identifiably Christian. Without trust, there can be no conversation. In the present conditions of the pandemic, there are few opportunities to meet new people so we should be mindful of the relationships already present in our lives. If you’re a Catholic, you probably know a lot of other Catholics who have ceased attending Mass, and some who go but don’t engage more deeply. Catholics who no longer attend Mass may have lost trust in the church for some particular reason – but they may trust you as an individual person.

In order to build trust, you need to do something very simple: become a brilliant friend. That’s not something you need religious instruction for – it’s a natural human skill. I can’t teach you how to do that – it comes out of your unique gifts as a person.

The second step requires us to stir up curiosity in the mind of the person who trusts us. When I first became a Christian, I heard advice that I should simple live out my Christian values and wait for people to ask me why I lived that way. After 10 years of doing this with no-one asking, I decided this wasn’t going to work as a strategy for drawing others to Christ and the Church. No, we have to be willing to find suitable moments to speak about Jesus! But we mustn’t become a bore. We must be equally willing to take an interest in the other person’s religious viewpoint. So listen first, then speak.

Once a trusting relationship has been established, you can share the story of your own faith as a natural part of that relationship. No-one can dispute your own lived experience, because on this you are the world’s foremost expert! 

We can find natural ways to speak of how faith is part of our lives. For instance, someone at work on Monday morning says, “What did you do over the weekend?” – if you went to church, say so, as if it were the most natural thing in the world! We should expect that our conversation partner has, at best, only a polite interest in our religious faith, so we must be careful not to overstay our welcome. We can just mention one thing about Jesus or some aspect of the Christian faith. If our friends want to know more, they will ask!

We must be realistic about what we can achieve in a one-off conversation. Sometimes we will sow a seed of the Gospel, and never know it, but we will rarely reap an instant result. Most successful faith-sharing takes place in ongoing relationships. And from this point onwards I will speak of the person we are evangelising as a friend – if we have successfully built trust, we will surely treat that person as a friend regardless of the final destination of their religious journey.

Everts & Schaupp describe campus events which they run aimed at the merely curious – not overtly religious events, rather using music, drama and other art forms to communicate Christian values and with a short slot to present something about Jesus in a way which dispels stereotypes and shows something of how radical Jesus is, to casual listeners. In a typical Catholic parish, many regular attenders have yet to pass Threshold Two, perhaps even Threshold One. Therefore, we must keep re-telling the Great Story of Jesus, which can awaken the desire to be a disciple, and we must emphasise that Jesus is someone with whom we can have a relationship today. This means we need to be ready to speak openly about our inner life of prayer and sense of relationship with God.

I’ve met dozens of young parents wanting their children baptised. I always ask them to tell me the story of their relationship with God, but often the answer they give is about the church – how they got baptised and made their first communion. They often don’t think of God as a person they can relate to – only as a label for “church stuff” For many of our churchgoers, their “relationship with the church”, or even their “relationship with a deceased relative” IS what they think of as their relationship with God. They can be helped by hearing testimonies from people who do have a relationship with God, and being encouraged to pray the Prayer of Openness – “God, if you are there, show yourself to me!”

So here are three practical things you can do:

  • Share your prayer life.
  • Use stories – this is what Jesus did. Answer people’s questions with one of his stories or something from your own life.
  • If someone’s already a member of a religious group, ask how they came to be a member. Very often, when I meet a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness, it’s a story of meeting someone who cared for them, not a spiritual or intellectual conversion. And in fact the same is true for new Catholics – in my experience 80% of RCIA attendance is because someone met a nice Catholic.

The third step is in red for a reason. It’s the most challenging of the whole process. It’s the threshold of Openness to the Possibility of Change.

The message of Jesus is challenging. When we take it seriously, it demands change in our way of life. A person may have to withdraw from a casual sexual relationship, or dodgy business dealings, to follow Christ with integrity. Even the most upstanding convert will need to exchange weekend leisure for regular worship. Many potential Christians waver for a long time at this threshold, and may be tipped over it by a major life-event. A friend on the threshold of openness might become very argumentative at this point. They are taking the challenge of Jesus seriously, and they know something life-changing is being asked of them. Naturally, their ego will put up resistance. Our task is not to argue back but to listen and to acknowledge their pain.

We might find that our friends engage in conversations about God – often asking the big questions about why a good God can allow evil in the world, or whether science has disproved God. (Spoiler: science has NOT disproved God – and I’m telling you this as a priest with a PhD in astrophysics – but that’s a whole other talk I could give you!) Someone who actively disagrees with you is willing to engage with you, and that’s good. Even if your friend is coming from a very different point of view, it’s important to be open, listen to what they say, and then you can have your own say.

An intense spiritual engagement, such as a Youth 2000 retreat or a parish mission, can stir up a new openness to God, nudging many participants through Threshold Three. But after the event, avoid the trap of channelling the new enthusiasm into ‘filling ministries’. Yes, you want new, keen volunteers to make your parish or prayer group work! But don’t rush the process. First offer the newly enthused members an ongoing opportunity to grow and be formed as disciples, and then the volunteering will come naturally.

So how do we hold and nudge our friends through this scary threshold of openness?

  • Speak honestly about your own struggles. Don’t sugar-coat following Jesus to make it seem easier than it is.
  • Help your friend explore the question “Where is God in this?” either in their struggles, or the story you are sharing.
  • Pray. This is a season for an intense spiritual battle. Double down on your prayers for your friend. If they are open, ask “Can I pray with you?”
  • This might also be a good time to invite your friend to come and experience Eucharistic Adoration. Explain that we believe Jesus is present, and just trust that He will connect with your friend when they come.

The fourth threshold is marked by a more active kind of seeking. Your friend has faced the crisis of knowing that God’s message demands change in their life, and has realised that hiding is not an option. So your friend now reaches out to God and is asking: “Are you the One to whom I can entrust myself?” Everts & Schaupp note that at this stage, a seeker will be asking questions specifically about Jesus – what did he teach, what examples did he give – rather than generically about God.

Only now will your friend be ready for true catechesis, and for exposure to different forms of prayer. This is no longer the time for attention-getting parables. Now is the time to give straight answers to their questions and suggest different ways of prayer they can try – guided Bible reading, the rosary and other devotions.

Balanced catechesis will show how a personal relationship with Jesus exists as part of a wider community – we come to Jesus through membership of a parish, where we receive the sacraments, and trusting that Christian teaching is clarified through the formal structures of the Catholic Church, which we call the Magisterium. In our liberal democratic culture, seekers may find it especially difficult to understand ideas such as the Church’s claim to have access to absolute truth, Catholic teaching on personal sin, and the idea of surrendering to Jesus as Lord. Young adults may find it easier to recognise the presence of sin in systemic problems in the way the world works – such as the way we fail to respect the Earth’s ecosystem – rather than personal failings.

At the fifth threshold, your friend has received enough satisfactory answers to their questions that they are ready to become a committed member of the Church, consciously follow Jesus and accept any major life-changes that this will require. When your friend has spent some time asking questions which show they are truly engaging with the big issues around following Jesus, it may be the right time to pop the question: “What about becoming a Christian? What about joining the Catholic Church?” – or if the person is already Catholic, “What about coming to confession and reconnecting?” If the response is “No”, a natural follow up is “Why not?”, and then deal with the blockages people present. Acknowledge your friend’s fear of “what would happen if I said yes to God”?

Everts & Schaupp suggest that intensive mentoring two or three times a week are important for supporting the new disciple during the ‘honeymoon’ of the first three months of their declared commitment to Christ – during which time the mentor ensures that the new disciple finds a place in a small group attached to their chosen worshipping community. In a Catholic context, a new person baptised at the Easter vigil then enters a few weeks of what is called mystagogia – reflecting on what just happened – but of course the convert’s inner journey could be months ahead of the Church’s liturgical cycle, and the true conversion of heart, that decision to follow Jesus, might need mentoring well before the liturgically ceremony which welcomes this publicly. 

Our Christian growth doesn’t end by becoming a disciple. Rather, any member of the church should look at the gifts and talents they have been given by God and ask “How can I use these to serve God in the church and in the world?” We can call these works “ministry”. There are many useful tools to help you reflect on your gifts and how to use them in God’s service, including the Clifton Strengthsfinder and the Siena Institute’s Called & Gifted material.

If you are free to discern a long-term or permanent commitment, you may also be asking the question, what is my vocation? Should I be a priest or a member of a religious community? Should I devote a few years of my life to full-time missionary work? The answer to these questions also flows naturally from an understanding of the gifts with which God has entrusted you.

Whether or not we choose to become full-time missionaries, Pope Francis has reminded us that all of us who are baptised are by that very fact called to be missionary disciples. 

Encouraging someone to take Jesus seriously, and therefore to become a Catholic, usually requires a relationship sustained over years. Can you share a meaningful message about Jesus if you only have 2 minutes for a conversation? Can you make a concrete invitation to say a prayer, or connect with a church, at the end of what you say? Do you expect to be able to nudge someone closer to Jesus?

It’s all too easy to blunder into enter this kind of conversation with judgement and expectation. “Why don’t you go to Mass? Why aren’t you pro-life? Don’t you believe Mary is appearing at such-and-such a place?” But in fact we have something much simpler to share. “You are loved. God created you to have a relationship with you. We human beings don’t love perfectly, but Jesus came to show us perfect love and to re-connect us with God.” And it’s that deliberate, personal re-connection with God which is crucial!

In Western cultures, we might find that 15% of the baptised Catholics attend Mass on any given Sunday – but some of those are going only once a month. In Ireland, until the 1990s, there was strong peer pressure to be seen to be going to Mass, but now the Catholic Church has become a toxic brand for many people. 

And then, how do we reach people who call themselves Catholics but who don’t engage with the Church? Many young people stop attending Mass in their teens or when they leave home for university. This isn’t so much a deliberate rejection of Catholicism as a failure to be drawn by it. A 2012 Canadian study of young Christians who stay (Hemmorhaging Faith 2012) indicates that young people who remain active in church have experienced God’s presence and seen prayers answered; they live in Christian communities where they feel able to wrestle with real spiritual questions including the Gospel story; and they have personal experience of adult communities living out Christian faith in authentic ways.

We recognise there are three distinct religious journeys in Catholic lives which don’t always match up: progress through the sacraments of initiation, active involvemehttps://cco.ca/nt in the church community, and the interior journey through the thresholds of discipleship. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognises that there is the “first conversion” (1427) by which we become disciples and then the ongoing or “second” conversion (1428) which takes place once we are disciples and find our apostolate (the “missionary discipleship” which Pope Francis speaks about). The Church recognises (Catechesi Tradendae 19) that when we set out to catechise people we have to face the reality that many have not yet been evangelised. So we need to know how to evangelise – and not make the mistake of trying to catechise people who still need to hear the basic Gospel.

As individuals, we can seek to have conversations about faith with the people who trust us. There are useful booklets and study tools which can help you from a Canadian mission group, Catholic Christian Outreach or CCO – you can find them online. And as members of parishes, we can ask how our parishes can help bring faith to people with no faith. This is why I’ve drawn the thresholds of discipleship as a circle; as individuals, we make the journey from trust the intentional discipleship and ministry – and perhaps even vocation – but a PARISH becomes a pump where those who are already intentional disciples work to build bridges of trust with new potential members and the cycle continues.

A parish can become a vibrant disciple-making institution, but it needs to be intentional. Does your parish have a plan? An effective plan is to run a regular outreach course as the engine to bring future disciples to that key decision point of choosing to follow Jesus. Suitable courses include Discovering Christ, Alpha, and Sycamore. These courses provide a safe place for people to ask questions about God and Jesus: they are a safe starting place for outsiders who aren’t familiar with church language. For those who already ‘belong’ to church they can be an opportunity to take a fresh look at what we believe. Graduates of these basic courses can then join longer lasting small ‘connect’ groups where they can grow as followers of Jesus and discern how to use 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!

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

Now that you are aware of the thresholds of discipleship, it may make more sense that there are also many people worshipping in our churches who are committed to something other than following Jesus. Many people will belong to a parish and be passionate about their community, and keeping the church building they worship in well repaired; they will raise money to fix the roof not to spread the gospel. Why? They are stuck at the threshold of trust or curiosity, believing in the community but not believing in the Lord in a personal way.

We will meet people in church who are passionate about serving poor, not because they love the Lord but because they love the people. Of course Jesus did tell us that the second great commandment is to love our neighbour; through his saying about the sheep and the goats it is clear that the way we treat our neighbours has an impact on our salvation. Saint James says that if we don’t love the neighbour we can see that there is a big question mark about whether our faith is real at all. All of us who are called to be disciples are obliged to love the neighbours whose needs we come across in our daily living. Some of us will also choose, as voluntary projects, to go out and seek those in need of help and give further help; but not everyone has the personal calling of being a devoted charity worker.

In parishes you may even meet those who say “we must do something for the young people”. Of course everyone in the parish notices when young people aren’t coming, or when they drop out at a certain age, particularly after confirmation. Many parishioners will be concerned to increase visible numbers. Now it’s not wrong to think about numbers. I have a number in mind: 100% – That’s the number of people I would like to invite to become followers of Jesus. We know we won’t achieve a 100% success rate; Jesus said so clearly. What’s crucial is that when you find yourself in that conversation about doing something for the young people, point out that if you make young people into disciples they will become passionate followers of Jesus who will want to come to mass and get involved in other church activities. Some will become enthusiastic servants of the poor out of their relationship with Jesus, and others will become young evangelists spreading the gospel to their peers, causing the church to grow. Disciples also give of their money generously! But only disciples will do all of these things. 

We can build buildings, grow congregations and carry out works of mercy without making disciples. But if you have limited resources, and a question of where to place your energies – I’d like to tell you this in the 12 years that I was a parish priest responsible for local church communities, I never once asked anyone to organise a fundraiser. When people freely volunteered to raise funds, I never blocked that, but I never asked anyone to focus their priority there either. What I did ask people to do was to focus on making disciples using courses like Alpha and Discovering Christ team because what happens when you make disciples? Disciples give generously and volunteer, and that’s when the church grows. When I took on my most recent parish it was in £50,000 of debt. Before I left, its bank balance was in credit and we had been able to install a computer projection system in the church. How? Not because I raised money for this purpose, but because I focused on making disciples. Seek first the kingdom of God and what you need will be given to you. That was advice from the master. I’ll let you into a secret: follow his advice and it works!

‘Making disciples’ is a process which embraces many stages of growth. It begins with primary evangelisation – proclaiming Jesus to those who do not yet know that He is the Risen Lord. 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?”

Jesus blessed children and taught adults. Unfortunately we often do things the other way round. We try to teach Catholic answers to children who aren’t ready to ask the right questions, just because they are the right age for First Communion or Confirmation. But when adults come seeking a baptism for their baby, or a wedding ceremony, parishes often offer them what they want with a simple blessing. Why? Because there aren’t individual parishioners or outreach groups with the time to engage these adults in personal conversations about faith. 

The parish priest can’t do it all on his own! In my last parish I had about 50 requests for baptism, another 70 for First Communion, and about 10 for marriage each year. There simply isn’t time or headspace for one priest to have 130 ongoing conversations with parents this year and start 130 new ones in each subsequent year. But it shouldn’t all be on the parish priest – as Pope Francis reminded us, we are ALL missionary disciples, and a healthy parish should have many adults who could encourage faith in these families – especially parishioners who are relatives or neighbours of the applicants! I mean, parishioners like you! Your parish priest might be put off by your enthusiasm, and worry that you take your faith too seriously – but I encourage you not to compromise in your zeal.

As I said earlier, About eight years ago I read Sherry Weddell‘s book Forming Intentional Disciples, and for the first time in my life, I no longer felt alone as a Catholic disciple in a parish. I want to share something that Sherry wrote, which made my heart sing for joy. 

In her youth she spent time with a group of other young enthusiastic Catholics and together they agreed on this description of what a normal parish looks like. Sherry and her group agreed on seven “norms” for a Catholic parish.  

1. It is normal for lay Catholics to have a living, growing love relationship with God.

2. It is normal for lay Catholics to be excited Christian activists.

3. It is normal for lay Catholics to be knowledgeable about their faith, the Scriptures, the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church, and the history of the Church.

4. It is normal for lay Catholics to know what their gifts of service are, and to be using them effectively in fulfilment of their vocation or call in life.

5. It is normal for lay Catholics to know that they have a vocation/mission in life (primarily in the secular world) given to them by God. It is normal for lay Catholics to be actively engaged in discerning and living this vocation.

6. It is normal for lay Catholics to have the fellowship of other committed lay Catholics available to them, to encourage, nurture, and discern as they attempt to follow Jesus.

7. It is normal for the local parish to function consciously as a house of formation for lay Catholics, which enables and empowers lay Catholics to do all of these Normal things.

 At last, here was someone else who “got it”! I wasn’t the only person in the world who believed a parish should be like this!

Now, my dear brothers and sisters, how do you feel about a church like this? Is this a church you’d want to join? Is this a parish you’d like to be part of? I think it is… but how do we bridge the gap between the reality of the parish where you live and worship at the moment, and what church could be?

 At last, here was someone else who “got it”! I wasn’t the only person in the world who believed a parish should be like this!

Only 5% of the regular Massgoers are deeply committed missionary disciples. But… if these disciples could be formed, inspired and given the right tools, they could double their number in mere months!

Here’s the thing. Whether a person attends Mass or not, you cannot know how far that person has travelled on the journey of discipleship unless you ask. If you only take one thing away from this talk, take this question: 

  • “Tell me the story of where God is in your life!” (or, for someone who has shared a messy life situation, “Where is God in this for you?”)

Ask this question whenever you get the chance – and then shut up and listen! Remember, for many people, “God” is just a label for “church stuff”. It’s easy for someone sitting in a congregation or prayer group to ignore information which has been “broadcast” to the whole audience. A one-to-one conversation forces the listener to engage – and often that engagement is enough to get the person thinking afresh about who God really is

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

If you get the chance to ask a second open question, try this:

  • “If you could ask God one question which he would answer for you right now, what would it be?”

Such “threshold conversations” can be very revealing about where a person is at, and can themselves provoke the kind of reflection that helps a person pass through towards the next threshold. The more a person experiences positive conversations about faith, the more open they will be to talking about faith. And the more conversations YOU can have with people about faith, the more effective you will be at making disciples.

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

I’ve made an assumption that because you’re in the audience for this talk, you’re probably a disciple already, and keen to make more disciples for Christ. But perhaps there are some among you who are not. Maybe today is the first time you’ve asked yourself whether you’ve made a personal commitment to be a follower of Jesus, not just a member of the Catholic Church. If so, today is a happy day, because you can make a commitment to Jesus at any time! If you are not yet baptised or confirmed, you can seal your commitment by receiving these sacraments. If you have turned away from Jesus through sin, you can come to confession. But whether or not you need any of these sacraments, you can make a commitment to Jesus right now, today. 

I am going to show some words used by Pope Benedict XVI at a World Youth Day, words we can use as a personal re-committment or to make a commitment to Jesus for the first time. I’ll give you a moment to read these words to decide if you want to declare them today. After each line I will pause so if you wish, you can repeat the line out loud, or in the silence of your heart. Let us pray.

Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God, who have given your life for me. I want to follow you faithfully and to be led by your word. You know me and you love me. I place my trust in you and I put my whole life into your hands. I want you to be the power that strengthens me and the joy which never leaves me.

Brothers and sisters, you are missionary disciples. May God bless you as you go forth to win many followers for Christ.

Consider Thomas!

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on Divine Mercy Sunday.

Consider Thomas, a man of great faith and dedication to the Lord!

In today’s Gospel, we famously meet St Thomas, the apostle who doubted. Thomas only stands out three times in the whole Bible, and we’ve just heard that he was not in the room when the other apostles first met the Risen Jesus. So not unreasonably, Thomas says:

Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.

Yet I have declared Thomas a man of great faith! Why do I dare to say this? The first time we see something of his character, it’s a few weeks earlier. Jesus is lying low on the far side of the River Jordan, because he knows the Pharisees are plotting to have him executed. Then news comes that his close friend, Lazarus, is seriously ill and close to death. The apostles become divided. Some say, “Lord, he’s your friend, you must go to him.” Others say, “No, Lord, it’s too dangerous – you can’t go.” Thomas says: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Thomas alone has the courage to stand up for loyalty and friendship, even to the point of risking death. So you can understand his doubt, his confusion, his despair, when he learns that Jesus appeared to the other apostles at a time when he alone, Thomas, wasn’t there! “Is this the the thanks I get for my loyalty? Our Master, who now seems to have the power to walk through locked doors and appear wherever and whenever he chooses, chooses to meet with all of them and not with me? Is THIS the thanks I get?”

Thomas is a man who wants to know things clearly. At the Last Supper, Jesus speaks about his coming death, and uses words which I’m sure we’ve all heard at many funerals: There are many rooms in His Father’s House, and he’s going to prepare a place for us. Jesus say to the apostles: “You know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas replies: “How can we know the way?”

Jesus IS the way. Thomas is looking for a plan. What Jesus is offering is a person. He turns to Thomas and says “I am the way.”

Jesus is the way, and Jesus makes a way for us. At communion time, we’re going to hear a modern worship song called <a href=”http://%3C%21–%20wp:paragraph%20–>%20<p>At%20communion%20time,%20we’re%20going%20to%20hear%20a%20modern%20worship%20song%20called%20<em>Waymaker.Waymaker. Our security is when we follow Jesus. But sometimes the Lord leads us through darkness. The song’s lyrics declare:

Even when I don’t see it, You’re workin’
Even when I don’t feel it, You’re workin’

Thomas wasn’t feeling it. Thomas wasn’t seeing it. His anguish was what any one of us might cry out in a dark time – “Lord, unless I can touch you, I can’t believe you’re really there.”

Thomas got his wish.

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’

John 20:26-27

I wonder how Thomas felt in that moment. He was carrying a mixture of fear and love, doubt and hope. He had doubted whether Jesus remembered and cared for him personally. He had doubted the testimony of his friends, that Christ was risen. But now, undeniably, Jesus had not only remembered him, but had noticed his doubt and his pain. Thomas’ reward for his loyalty was to be written into history as the one man to stand for all of us who know that same painful mixture of doubt and hope. All of us will have moments of crying out, “Lord, are you there?” in the dark times of our lives. It is not the Lord’s will to answer immediately. But neither is it the Lord’s will to fail to answer at all. The Lord shows himself to Thomas on the ‘eighth day’, the time of perfection, a week after hope is given. “I am the way” says Jesus. “I am the one who will show himself to you after a time of testing. Doubt no longer but believe.”

On this Sunday we also remember that Jesus appeared to St Faustina Kowalska in the 20th century, to show his Divine Mercy. “Paint an image of my with two rays streaming from my breast: the water of baptism and the blood of communion. On the Sunday after Easter, honour this image, saying, ‘Jesus, I trust in you.’”

You won’t find promises of a trouble-free life in the Bible. You will find promises that God will walk with us through the darkness. When we say, “Jesus, I trust in you,” what we mean is: “Jesus, I will follow your commands even when times are hard; I know you walk with me through the darkness.” Thomas and the other apostles knew the darkness of facing the Death of Jesus, yet they were sent as messengers of hope to the whole world!

This is the victory over the world – our faith! Do you want to win a victory over the world? Put your trust in Jesus. Keep praying to him. Keep confessing your sins and receiving Holy Communion, or at least making an Act of Spiritual Communion. Look for the signs that he loves you. They won’t always be the signs that you wish for, but they are there.

Thomas finally recognised who Jesus was. “My Lord and My God!” When we recognise this, we can dare to declare:

You are here, working in this place
I worship You.

You are here, turning lives around
I worship You.

You are here, healing every heart
I worship You.

Jesus, I trust in you. Jesus, I trust in you!

Easter Unveiled

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on Easter Sunday.

Today is the present when the future begins. Look at the signs of hope!

We have an empty tomb and a folded linen cloth – but wait! In today’s Gospel, of Jesus himself there is no sign.

Next Sunday, we’ll read how Jesus appeared to the group of apostles and showed himself to doubting Thomas. But for Easter Sunday, we’re left in doubt and confusion – just like the disciples on the first Easter morning. And perhaps that’s more appropriate for us. Unlike the apostles, we haven’t seen the risen Jesus. Like them, we experience a mixture of faith and doubt.

We doubt because we have intellectual questions about God – if he loves us, why is the world in such a mess?

We doubt because we have mixed feelings about God – does he really love me personally when my life is such a mess?

We doubt because we’ve heard the rumours, but we can’t see the Lord of life with our own eyes.

Yet we’re here on Easter Sunday morning because deep down, we believe. And we see the signs today of the hope we hold for tomorrow.

Scripture says there was another cloth, the one which had covered the face of Christ, rolled up and put to one side. How much we look forward to the day when we can take the cloths covering our faces, roll them up, and put them away for good! That detail might also remind us that Moses had to cover his face to hide the reflected glory of God – but now Jesus has shown us God’s glory, not only by rising from the dead but by the way he died, embracing all of faults and sins. It’s only when we understand the spiritual consequences of this that we see the cross truly is the place where a hero gave his life to save the human race. In another letter, St Paul wrote that we too would have unveiled faces to reflect the glory of Christ – in today’s letter, we are reminded that in the future we will share in Christ’s resurrection. For this we wait in expectant hope!

Faith and doubt go together. It’s because we’re surrounded by doubt, that each Easter, we’re invited to renew our baptismal promises. This isn’t meant to be a mere ritual we perform because it’s Easter Sunday. In this computer age it’s all too easy to click “Yes” to the terms and conditions, without thinking through what we’re doing. But what we do today needs thought. It’s meant to be a personal and deliberate choice to live our lives God’s way – your promise to me, to one another, and to God.

Promises matter. American Football Coach Bill McCartney, founder of a Christian men’s network called the Promise Keepers, once told a story about how he prepared his team for a crucial match. Each player was asked to reflect on what they were going to do. Then each player had to come, personally, and tell the coach what he intended to do on game day. At the big match, the team played better than anyone expected.* Each player kept his promise.

In a few moments, you’ll be asked to make three promises.

“I renounce Satan.” This is more than repenting of sin. To “renounce” is to say: I want nothing to do with this! I am not only sorry that I gave in to sin when I was tempted; I don’t want that sin to have any lasting hold on me. I will do everything in my power never to fall into sin again!

Don’t believe the lie that you are unforgiveable or that God doesn’t care about you. Our Father in heaven simply wants us to be set free. Will I be a victim or walk in freedom? Will I let the Enemy bully me into not being the best version of myself? Just declaring that we renounce Satan helps us overcome that fear.

Coach McCartney would ask what you’re going to do this year, to break any ongoing temptation and kick Satan out of your life!

“I believe in God.” To believe is more than a mental exercise of holding an idea in your head. To “believe” is literally “to put your faith in”. Like the Apostles, because we receive Holy Communion, we can declare: “We have eaten and drunk with him after his resurrection from the dead.” With the Apostles, we share in the Great Commission: he ordered us to proclaim that God has appointed Jesus to judge everyone, alive or dead. All who believe in Jesus will have their sins forgiven.

How often will we put our trust in Christ’s command to eat his flesh as the Bread of Life, or make an act of Spiritual Communion on days then this is not physically possible?

How often will we tell other people that Jesus will forgive anyone who turns to him, but will also pass sentence on anyone who dies without asking forgiveness?

Coach McCartney would ask what you’re going to do this year, because you put your trust in Jesus, the Saviour of the world!

“I believe in the Catholic Church.” To put your faith in the Church needs a personal commitment to making the community where you worship the very best that it can be, taking part and using your gifts fully.

One more question, though not one the liturgy asks us today. “Do you believe in yourself?” The crowd is watching you. Your coach believes in you, and wants to give you confidence you can play to win. Our Christian life is a team effort. If you are on the Lord’s team, you are already on the winning side. Alone you can do nothing, but together we are unstoppable.

Perhaps you already know what you will do to live out your baptismal promises in the next 12 months. If so, I encourage you to write something in the chat!  … Today is the present where the future begins. We are not alone – Christ is risen from the dead, Alleluia!

Our Thorny Crown

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on Palm Sunday of Lent, Year B.

“In truth this man was a son of God.”

Do we see before us an outlaw or a king?

Some would say there is no difference, for when an outlaw becomes a king he remakes the law in his own favour.

But Christ is the king of a higher law, the law of God’s kingdom – and the symbol of this kingdom is a crown of thorns.

From the very beginning, thorns have been a symbol of godlessness.

When Adam tasted the forbidden fruit, the ground was cursed such that he would toil to raise edible food among the new-grown thorns.

When the prophets looked for an image for the pagan nations, tempting Israel away from God’s law, Moses, Samuel and Jeremiah all likened them to thorns – and Joshua to thorns in our eyes.

When Jesus spoke of the sower with the good seed of the kingdom, some seed was choked among thorns, representing the cares and attractions of this world.

Now, the pagans, the Romans, have dressed Jesus as a phoney king and placed a crown of thorns upon his brow – perhaps scratching at his very eyes.

These thorns are my sins and transgressions. Each time I choose to turn from God’s Law, I add another barb to his crimson crown.

This king loves you enough to wear the crown. And he promises you a crown in return – a crown of beauty for the ashes of your repentance. Since Ash Wednesday, you have been seeking more intentionally to amend your life – but at some level you will have failed. Fear not! He offers you not a crown in reward for your success, but a crown earned by his victory, his choice to take every last sin of the human race and bear it to Golgotha.

You have been offered transfiguration but been subject to temptation. Jesus has been exalted that you may be purified. To bear the fruit God seeks, you must die to old ways – you must allow Christ to crucify everything within you which is not worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven. To reign with him, you must share his crown of thorns.

Each Sunday of the year is a celebration of resurrection. This Sunday, uniquely, is a celebration of crucifixion. It is meant to leave us desolate, abandoned with the scattered friends of Jesus. Some preachers might choose to let silence speak at this moment in the Mass. But this year, we need some light in our darkness, some hope in our hardship. It is coming! The veil of the temple, the division between heaven and earth, has been parted. There is a way for our future glory to enter our present reality – can you hear it, the sound of heaven touching earth? – but this is the story for the week ahead.

Today is the Sunday of great contrasts. A crown, not of gold but of thorns. Hosanna! Crucify him! The king of the Jews, executed as a common criminal. The King is dead. Long live the King!

Germination

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Last month, tens of thousands of people from all over the world tuned in to a webcam at the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. A rare ‘moonflower’ was expected to bloom at any moment – and watchers were caught off guard when this happened not during the night, but in broad daylight.

In ancient Jerusalem, people from afar were also looking for a rare attraction – some Greeks arrived, pagans with an interest in Judaism, and declared “We want to see Jesus.” Maybe they were content to have him pointed out to them. Maybe they wanted an interview with him. Perhaps St John was even using “seeing” to mean “believing and understanding”. Whatever it was they wanted, their arrival was a sign: news of Jesus had passed beyond the Jewish nation and was beginning to attract the wider world. When pressed to perform his first miracle at Cana, Our Lord protested that his hour had not yet come; but now, with the nations watching, the hour was indeed at hand.

When a moonflower blossoms, it is a bittersweet occasion. The beautiful and fragrant bloom soon closes again and exudes a putrid odour. Yet this is necessary for the flower to achieve its purpose and give rise to new life. Jesus too needed to alert his supporters that the path ahead would lead through devastating loss before the new life he had promised could be attained, and he too chose an image from the natural world, an image which warned that what was to come was quite different from what had gone before – as different as an ear of wheat is from a tiny grain.

How do you enable a grain of wheat to burst into new life?

Well, first you have to wait for the right time. Winter wheat and spring wheat each have a right time for planting. Jesus waited until he was 30 to begin his public ministry.

Next, the seed needs to be watered. Jesus began his public ministry with baptism.

A seed cannot grow without oxygen. The Holy Spirit, whose name means ‘breath’, descended upon the newly-baptised Christ.

Some seeds need to pass through a trial before they germinate – a forest fire, a cloud of smoke, or rough treatment in the gizzard of some animal. In all cases the seed must break its outer casing and send a root earthwards and a shoot heavenwards. Jesus was roughly crucified, his body laid in the earth and his divine spirit released to enter heaven, after a visit to the holy souls waiting outside the gates.

A seed does not literally die when it is planted – a truly dead seed will not germinate at all – but it suffers the ‘death’ of losing its old identity. We could choose many other examples of creatures which have shed their old identity – caterpillars becoming butterflies, nymphs becoming dragonflies, tadpoles becoming frogs and toads; all point us to the need to grow and change. Yet each of these creatures changes according to the law written in its very being, the DNA which programmes every cell in its body.

“If anyone serves me, that person must follow me.”

Jesus invites us to follow him through death and resurrection. Everyone who becomes a follower of Jesus faces the trial of openness to change:  if we are truly to be servants of Jesus, he tests us to see if we are willing to live by his standards even when this is far from convenient for us. This might be a challenge to turn away from some obvious sin – but it might be the challenge to stand up for Jesus and for his church in the face of public criticism.

This week, the Vatican issued a statement explaining why the Catholic Church is unable to offer blessings to same-sex couples. We may find ourselves suddenly challenged to justify why the Church is ‘homophobic’. We live in an age which is not interested in what ‘the Church teaches’ so we need to shift the conversation to ‘what Jesus said’. In fact, Our Lord said nothing directly about same-sex relationships, but did say it was God’s plan, made clear in Genesis, that a husband and wife should form a committed bond with one another. So perhaps the best response to a critic is that the Catholic Church exists to bless what Jesus blessed, and we are only trying to be faithful to Jesus; the same statement said that the Church will gladly bless individuals who seek to be faithful to God’s plan. What the church says to all human beings who experience same-sex attraction – as it does to all other people – is that “You are valued. You are loved by God. You are worthy of God’s blessing.” This response will not satisfy all our critics, but it may encourage them to take a fresh look at who Jesus was and what he taught. Our role is only to hold Jesus up in front of the world – he is the one who will ‘draw all people to himself’.

Recently a Zulu king died and was buried – but in the Zulu culture, they use a word to indicated that he was ‘planted’ in the ground and gathered unto his ancestors.

It is not enough that Jesus died and entered eternal life – I too must be planted. The divine law written in my heart must be allowed to shape my growth. It is not about who I am now, but who I am called to be. What part of my shell must be broken? My pride? My selfishness? My desire to conform to the world around me? My fear of change? After the water of baptism, after the infilling of the Holy Spirit, I must face up to the challenge to change.

Do you want to see Jesus? Do you want to follow him, whatever the cost? He is the one affirmed by the voice of the Father. And Christ himself cries out: “Come to me on the cross! Embrace the tree of life! Drink from the source of eternal salvation! But do this and your life will never be the same again.”

The day and the hour of our own blooming into eternal life is as mysterious as that of the moonflower. But the webcam team were ready. Don’t be caught out. Don’t delay. The day to give God permission to break your shell and begin your transformation is today. Our crosses are veiled because today is not the day to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection. Today, we celebrate yours – but only if you are willing to change!

A Whole Glass of Love

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Some say the glass is half empty.

Some say the glass is half full.

Me? I say the glass is twice as big as it needs to be!

We’ve just passed the half-way mark of Lent. It’s a good time to review our hopes for this Lent, the personal challenges we set out for ourselves. Were they bigger than they needed to be? If you’ve achieved something positive, but not as much as you hoped – I say well done, for taking a step in the right direction. And even if you feel like a failure, remember that it’s better to fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed, than to succeed in a cause that will ultimately fail.

Our first reading points us to a time of failure; the people of Israel, up to and including the Temple Priests, had failed to follow God’s Holy law – and not in a minor way. They’d embraced pagan religions, allowed the poorest members of society to be mistreated, and ignored the prophets sent to correct them. When the Israelites were deported to Babylon – present day Iraq – the Bible sees this as a punishment from God. Yet God is merciful, and merely 70 years later their descendants were allowed to return to the Promised Land.

The current lockdown has dragged on for months since Christmas, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel – and no, it’s not a train coming the other way. We may be unhappy with the state of the world; we might even wonder if what’s happening now is some kind of divine punishment. But we don’t need new prophets to tell us that God’s laws still stand: God expects us to care for the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, at home and abroad. If we see the state of the world as a punishment from God, it might be that we’re expecting a bigger glass than the one God has provided. Jesus did not come to promise us that we would be safe in this life. He only promises us that we are loved.

God’s love sometimes comes in unexpected forms. In the days of Moses, the people grumbled that their journey to the Promised Land was taking too long. The Bible tells us that God permitted fiery serpents to come among the people and smite them with poisonous venom, as a punishment. But God also instructed Moses to create a bronze serpent held high on a pole, so that those who looked upon it would be healed. I wonder which surprises us more – that God would allow a punishment to be inflicted in this way, or that God would use an image of something apparently evil as a tool of healing?

For St John the Beloved Disciple, that ancient bronze serpent was a prophecy of Christ. Another symbol of evil – the crucifix – would become a sign of healing. We lift up the Cross – we place it on our walls – we exalt the Crucified one – as an act of love.

We should remember that in the ancient Roman Empire, a crucifix had the same significance as a noose, a guillotine, an electric chair or a gurney prepared for lethal injection. It was a sign that a person of the deepest wickedness was being punished for their crimes.

An ancient Roman transported to the 21st Century would gaze at any cross around your neck with the same incredulity we would give to someone sporting a miniature gallows as fashion jewellery. Yet that same cross is a place of incredible love. Jesus embraced the Cross because of love. Mary stood steadfast at the foot of the Cross, because of love. St John the Beloved kept vigil with Mother and Son because of love. Yet of these, the greatest love is that shown by Jesus – causing so much pain to his Beloved Mother and Beloved Disciples by offering his life as a ransom for all the wretches in the history of humankind.

God’s offer is simple. Put your faith in the man upon the Cross. Do this, and you shall live for ever. Perhaps that sounds too simplistic, in the same class as believing that looking at a bronze pole could cure your snakebite. But God’s ways are not our ways. In fact, they are so different from our own ways that God needs to grab our attention. Look at the man upon the cross! Look at the humility of God! Look at what he was willing to do, knowing that it opens the door for you to be forgiven all your sins, cleansed of all your curses, and admitted to unending happiness in heaven. Jesus did this, and he did it for you!

Some decades ago, a Christian poet, one John Williams, was travelling on a train when he noticed one passenger suffering a fit – and another one tending to him. The patient was a wounded soldier from the British Army. The carer was also a soldier, an American who had dedicated his life to caring for the wounded Englishman who had saved his life; indeed, the fitting was due to the wound received in that moment. The American explained to poet Williams how he had abandoned his plans for marriage and life in the United States to remain in Britain for his comrade in arms: “He did that for me! There’s nothing I can’t do for him.”

Today being Mother’s Day, I would be at fault if I didn’t invite you to pause and ponder the honour due to your mother. She endured the pains of labour for you, and most likely changed your soiled underwear, kissed your wounded knee, and soothed your aching spirit on many occasions. If she has passed into God’s hands, offer a prayer for her. If she’s still with us, what can you do today to show your love and your gratitude?

But once your mother has been honoured, remember also the one who loved you so much he gave up his life for you. He doesn’t ask the impossible from you. Nor does he worry about receiving a half-empty glass. He only asks for your all – 100% of what you can give him, and not one drop more. We don’t earn our way into heaven by our good works, but we do demonstrate our love for Christ by loving others in our turn. And it’s fitting on this Mother’s Day that I give the last word to my own Mum, whose words of wisdom to me on many occasions were these: “Gareth, always do your best, for you can’t do better than that.”

Thanks Mum. I’ll drink to that – a whole glass!


Acknowledgments – quotes in today’s homily were drawn from three episodes of Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, by Ann Atkins (22 Sep 2020) , Giles Fraser (30 Sep 2020) and Bill Arlow (10 Nov 2020).

Letter to MP regarding Foetal Cell Lines in Vaccine Production and Testing

The Vatican has advised Catholics that they may use any covid-19 vaccine produced or tested using cell lines which originate in historic abortions, as long as they have a serious reason for doing so. Given the lethal potential of this virus, the impact on one’s dependents and the capacity of the health service, as well as the growing evidence that vaccines reduce a person’s ability to spread covid-19, such a serious reason exists in this case. But Catholics are also asked to put “pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available”. I recently sent this letter to my MP and am happy to make the text available for others to use freely.

Dear (MP Name), I am a constituent resident at (give your address, as the MP must known you are a constituent to deal with your message.)


The rush to produce and deploy vaccines on a global scale has brought a new focus on the ways in which vaccines are manufactured and tested using products derived from aborted human foetuses. This applies not only to covid-19 vaccines but other vaccines which have been in routine use for children and adults, for many years. 

I am sure you will recognise that this is distasteful to many, and a moral red line for some, even though it has been a scientific ‘necessity’ to achieve the ends of life-saving vaccinations for much of the last 50 years. Should the Government move to introduce any kind of vaccine ‘passport’ scheme, this will place conscientious objectors to such vaccines in a very difficult position.

Let me make my own stance clear: when I am called to receive a vaccine, I will accept it as the socially responsible thing to do, but with a heavy heart; I will seek to receive an mRNA vaccine (not developed, only tested, in embryo cell lines) rather than the other options if I have any freedom to do so; and I am raising my voice in protest at the limited options available by the act of writing this letter.

Due to my own religious and moral views, I would very much prefer that abortion were outlawed; but I recognise that this is not an achievable goal in the UK in the foreseeable future. Based on scientific evidence, I recognise that there are strong advantages to the pharmaceutical industry in comparing new products against well-established standards derived from embryo cell lines; moving away from these standards is not technically impossible but requires the force of funding and legislation to overcome inertia.

As my Parliamentary representative, I would therefore ask you to work towards two goals, which would at least move towards minimising the issues for conscientious objectors and maximising the uptake of future vaccines. These goals are:

 (1) Requiring prioritised Government funding to develop ethical cell lines which can be used for developing and testing vaccine products;

 (2)  As soon as these ethical cell lines are sufficiently developed, requiring by legislation that these cells, rather than embryo-derived cells, be used for quality control checks on any vaccine made available in the UK.

I attach a short paper setting out the rationale for each of these steps.

As your constituent, I assure you of my prayers for your work and well-being in these strange times.

Yours Sincerely,

YOUR NAME


Cell lines are used to develop and test vaccines because they are human cells detached from a living human body which can be grown at scale in a laboratory. Some vaccines rely on modifying a mild virus to resemble part of the dangerous virus; these mild viruses must be grown in human, not animal, cells for maximum effectiveness. Other vaccines – the innovative mRNA vaccines – can be synthesised chemically, but still need to be tested for safety and quality by their effect on human cells.

Some of the available cell-lines are ‘immortalized’ – they have been manipulated so that they will keep reproducing indefinitely (the successful strains represent ‘happy accidents’ since our ability to manipulate is currently based on limited knowledge). These strains include[1] the HEK293 cells used to test vaccines and to grow the anticovid AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine – and the PER.C6 strain for the Johnson & Johnson one shot vaccine recently authorised in the USA. Insofar as the abortions which gave rise to these cell lines are irreversible historic events, these cells can be used without ‘encouraging’ future abortions.

Vaccines for other serious diseases are gown in cell lines which are not immortalised. The British MRC-5 line, the American WI-38 line and Chinese Walvax-2 line are regularly used, but these cells, like all non-cancerous cells in the human body, can only reproduce themselves a limited number of times. In the UK,[2] the MRC-5 and WI-38 lines are used to produce the rubella component of the MMR vaccine, and vaccines against chickenpox and shingles. These cell lines will eventually lose their capacity to reproduce, and will need to be replaced – but by what? By procuring cells from a fresh abortion?

We now have the ability to take cells from consenting adult donors and regress them to a near-embryonic stage – such cells are known as induced pluripotent stem cells. These are less ideal candidates for growing vaccines because (at our current ability to manipulate them) they will not retain their pluripotent status forever; they also impede scientists’ ability to match ‘like with like’ in reviewing historical data against current research. Nevertheless, if there were sufficient reason to do so (positive funding, and legislation restricting the use of embryonic cell lines), ways could be found to use these totally ethical cell lines to produce and test vaccines at scale.

The UK Parliament has always recognised that there is a grave issue of conscience around abortion. Free votes are permitted to MPs; there is a (limited) right of conscientious objection by medical practitioners who do not wish to perform terminations. We should therefore recognise that similar grave issues of conscience apply to those who wish to take a vaccine for the common good but do not wish to be tainted in any way by co-operating with a historic abortion, still less consuming a limited resource which may one day require replenishment by a future abortion. This should be sufficient reason to implement goal 1 now (fund research to enable ethical adult-derived cells to become useful for growing and testing vaccines) and goal 2 as soon as technically feasible (where the Government requires quality control testing, this must be done using ethical cells).


[1] https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/06/abortion-opponents-protest-covid-19-vaccines-use-fetal-cells 

[2] https://vk.ovg.ox.ac.uk/vk/vaccine-ingredients#human-cell-strains and https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/use-of-human-and-animal-products-in-vaccines/guide-to-the-use-of-human-and-animal-products-in-vaccines 

A Greater Time

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Time is greater than space.

That’s one of Pope Francis’ favourite expressions, and it’s worth thinking about.

We’ve just heard how Jesus cleared out the traders from the Temple. What was happening there was wrong on so many levels. At the simplest, the Temple was meant to be a holy space – trading wasn’t appropriate there. But at a deeper level, the whole moneychanging business was corrupt. Middlemen profited from poor people who wanted to buy clean animals for their sacrifices. The very poorest couldn’t afford to do so at all!

If you know a holy place which has become cluttered with things that shouldn’t be there, maybe this is the week to do something about it. But… time is greater than space. So on this day of Lent, we can also ask, is my time filled with things that shouldn’t be there?

“On the seventh day, God rested.” Among the Ten Commandments, we find one which is about stopping to rest. Observant Jews keep a sabbath day from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. By God’s law, they avoid labour. By ancient custom, they make it a family day, beginning on Friday evening with the sabbath meal marked by special blessings.

You won’t find a law in the New Testament about Sunday being a day of rest. Jesus rose from the dead early on Sunday morning. The first Christians met to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the evening each Sunday, which was a working day in the Roman Empire. Later, when Christianity was no longer an underground religion, Sunday became a public day of rest.

So what’s at the heart of the idea of a sabbath? Is it a day for rest, a day for worship or a day for families to be together? The Christian Sunday is for all of these things.

St John Paul II wrote a whole reflective letter on what Sunday means. He challenged all followers of the Lord to make this a day for spending time together in a leisurely way. Now this can take a bit of planning, but families who keep Sunday well develop traditions: maybe the whole family bakes together. Maybe Sunday’s food is prepared on Saturday. Or if you’re living alone, it might be a day when you plan to make a longer phone call to someone.

It’s a day when you could plan to do more – and to do less.

Do more – that is, do something to mark it out as a special day. You could wear different clothes – I don’t mean “going to church” clothes but “this is a special day” clothes. You could put a different cloth on the dinner table, or decorate it with flowers.

Do less – if there’s a way to avoid chores on a Sunday, avoid them. Or if there’s cooking, cleaning or gardening which has to be done, can you make a fun family activity out of it? And maybe turn off your mobile devices for a few hours, so they don’t get in the way of family time!

But do something. The Lord’s Day exists in time, rather than space. It’s what you do, more than where you do it, which makes this day different. Time is greater than space!

Making Sunday special is possible.

I have a friend in Bristol who makes it clear to her employers that she won’t work on Sundays. She’s willing to be flexible with shifts on other days, but she won’t take overtime on a Sunday. It’s her day for rest and for God.

I have a friend in Newport who runs an award-winning restaurant – which doesn’t open on Sundays. It shares its front access with a busy supermarket which does open on Sunday; but if you want a meal at the famous Gemelli’s on Sunday, I’m sorry, that’s not going to happen. To the world, this is foolishness; in God’s eyes, this is a very wise position.

I know a couple in Wales who mastered the art of using Zoom to connect with distant family members long before lockdown made us all experts in videoconferencing. By putting a table against a big screen and a video camera, they can share a Sunday meal with their grandchildren in Australia!

St John Paul also asks us what time we give to prayer and to studying our faith on a typical Sunday – either alone, or again, with family. Is it a day to read from a book of saints or a Bible story to young family members? Is it a day to connect with godchildren?

It doesn’t take long to form a habit. For the last two month, schools have been closed and we’ve got into the habit of looking after children at home. Now schools are about to re-open, and the rhythm of the week will change again – even if you don’t have kids at home, you may notice a change in the traffic and the way the world moves around you.

Lent is a time for new beginnings. Is it time to make a good habit for Sundays? It’s better to do something small but meaningful, than to shoot for the moon. Maybe start with half a Sunday – if you’re morning people, no chores after 11 am – or if you work best in the evening, none before 4 pm. If you live with others, have a household discussion… and even if not all of the people at home are people who pray, you don’t have to be religious to do family time well. Just make sure there’s enough time for the people who do want to pray, to pray.

Jesus knows the heart of every person. He knows that part of your heart which yearns for sabbath rest, and that part which is caught up in wanting to get stuff done. This is the season of purification: don’t struggle on your own, but ask him to cleanse the temple which is your very self. This may take time, but relax: time is greater than space, and the Lord of all ages will revive your soul and gladden your heart. And in the words of Pope Francis: “Have a good Sunday and a good lunch!”

Acknowledgements to Sarah Damm’s website for inspiration.

Covid Conversations

As a priest with a science background, several people have asked me about covid-19 and vaccinations. I stress that as an astrophysicist, I am not a specialist in viruses and vaccines – but as someone with wide experience in general science communication, I have a good working knowledge of genetics and cell biology, professional training in experimental statistics, and the experience to read scientific papers outside my field and recognise legitimate claims. A lot of the ‘concerned scientists’ who are championed by antivaxers have no more subject-specific expertese than I… so with these caveats in mind, let’s look at the issues.

Is Covid-19 really a serious threat?

Perhaps you are sympathetic to conspiracy theories that covid-19 doesn’t exist at all. If that’s your starting point, I’m not sure where we can find common ground; you will find a weak reason to discredit any piece of evidence I try to bring to the table and decide it must be a strong reason, because otherwise you’d be wrong and I would be right. As a professional scientist, I am confident that if there were a global conspiracy to pretend a virus exists, there would be whistleblowers a-plenty. Science can only work by publishing evidence and cross-checking results. Science is also international, and planet Earth doesn’t have a good track record of its nations working together for a common cause – so it’s unlikely that Asian and American and European and African and Australasian scientists could all be bribed or threatened into presenting a false united front. So I’m going to start by saying that covid-19 exists – but what is it?

A virus is a piece of genetic code in a chemical capsule which protects the genes long enough to travel from one person to another, and then infiltrate the cells in the next person’s body. The genetic code instructs those cells in the new victim’s body to make fresh copies of the genetic code and package it in similar capsules. A coronavirus is a kind of virus where the ‘capsule’ is shaped like a ball covered with spikes; and these spikes help the virus infiltrate the cells in our body – specifically, our lungs when we breathe it in.

A virus which can get itself copied and spread, and not kill its host before it does so, will thrive. The victim’s immune system will attack the virus to repel the invasion – and it’s our own immune response that causes ‘flu-like symptoms’ when we receive either a virus, or a vaccine which trains our immune system to recognise part of the virus.

When viruses get duplicated, sometimes copying errors are made in the genetic code. And, more rarely but often enough, two viruses get into the same cell at the same time, and their code can be stitched together to make a new pattern. Most of these changes (mutations) make the viruses less successful, or even incapable of spreading successfully – but occassionally the random mutation happens to be one which is more spreadable – and therefore, the new pattern spreads! This is why we are now talking about ‘new variants’ of covid-19. When the variation affects the shape of the capsule or the spikes on it, it makes it less likely that your body’s immune system, trained to recognise the original shape (by illness or a vaccine) will recognise this new shape as a known invader for rapid disposal.

There are a wide range of possible outcomes if you catch covid-19. You might not develop symptoms at all, but still have enough infection that you are breathing out thousands of virus particles with every breath. You might have a mild flu-like episode. You might have serious breathing difficulties and need to be on an oxygen supply or a more invasive ventilator (tube placed down your airway). When you recover (whether or not you had severe breathing difficulties), you might suffer long-term lethargy (‘long covid’). Or you might not recover – you could die.

One person from my wider circle of friends died last summer. Two of my friends – a hospital doctor and a priest – are suffering long-term consequences of covid. Another doctor-friend was off work for more than a month before recovering eventually. I also know a number of families who suffered only very mild bouts. As far as I know, I haven’t caught covid yet.

It’s been said that human life itself is a sexually-transmitted terminal condition – we’re all born, and we’re all going to die of something (unless we live to see the Second Coming of Christ!) In Western democracies, part of the social contract is that the state will make reasonable efforts to stop you dying of avoidable causes – an ambulance will come, and a skilled team of doctors will do their best to help you recover from the brink of death when you suffer an accident, illness or other medical incident (and in some countries, give you a handsome bill for their trouble when they discharge you). But the resources available are not infinite – money is not poured into researching very rare diseases which won’t recoup costs for drug companies, and hospitals will politely suggest that an expensive life-support machine be switched off when there’s no medical reason to expect that a patient will recover, once brain-stem death has been diagnosed.

In Britain, our current social policies are built around not stretching our National Health Service beyond capacity. We don’t want to be in a position where we say ‘This covid patient wasn’t given a fighting chance to pull through because no ventilator was available.’ (Note that to be ‘available’ there needs to be trained ventilator staff as well as a physical machine!) Already, the need to respond to covid emergencies and disinfect ambulances has led to increased response times with likely fatal consequences. Measuring the impact of covid is tricky. How do we take account of people with other medical conditions whose treatment is stopped or delayed becuse the NHS is focussing on covid? How many people who die within 28 days of getting a positive covid test (an easy statistic to measure) actually died ‘because’ of covid? If you catch covid and have another health condition too, which of them is responsible for your demise? Scientists are not blind to these problems, and so the preferred way to measure the impact of covid is to look at the age profile of people who died in 2020 (the study linked goes up to 20 Nov 2020), and compare it to what the age profile would have been expected to be based on data from previous years. This method shows that in England and Wales, because of covid and despite the restrictions of the spring and autumn lockdowns and other measures, 53,937 people died who would otherwise have been alive by 20 Nov.

Now, how many of those 53,937 people would have died soon after 20 Nov 2020 anyway – and how many would have gone on enjoy many more years of life? It’s impossible to predict what would have happened to individuals, but a careful study from Glasgow suggests that a healthy 80 year-old who dies from covid would, on average, otherwise have lived to be 90. A person in their 50s who dies from covid is most likely to lose about 30 years of life. It’s sad but unsurprising to see high death tolls in nursing homes, where residents are near the end of their lives anyway; those who would have died soon from other causes are most vulnerable to covid. But when those lives are of soneone’s cherished grandparents, it would be a brave or foolish person who claimed that these deaths don’t matter! For the population as a whole, covid-19 shortens the life of a woman by 0.9 years and the life of a man by 1.2 years – but these averages are summing up what happens to the many who don’t catch covid and the portion who do, plus taking into account the impact on society of all the consequences of coronavirus.

What about me? I’m a 47 year old, obese, white male. The qcovid calculator (which matches my chances to what happened to people in the first UK lockdown profiled by age, weight, race and other factors) suggests that in the next 90 days, I have a 1 in 1309 chance of being admitted to hospital due to covid-19 and a 1 in 17857 chance of dying because of covid-19. Now this probability conflates the chance that I catch the disease and the chance of getting serious consequences if I do. My chance of catching it in the first place is lower than someone who has to work in a healthcare environment or public place. What about my parents? Men are more vulnerable than women, and my Dad has a roughly 1 in 400 chance of dying due to covid in the next 90 days… but what happens when 90 days become 900? This brings the odds to 1 in 40. Without vaccinations, even if we stay in lockdown, 39 people with Dads like mine won’t lose their Dad to covid before the end of 2023. One will.

Vaccine Questions

The human body has a wonderful and adaptable immune system. White blood cells are constantly vigilant for biological material which doesn’t seem to be part of your own body, and after successfully repelling an invader, they retain a ‘memory’ causing them to respond more quickly to future invasions by the same enemy. Traditional vaccines train the body to recognise an invader by providing a ‘training dose’ which might be only part of the full invading organism, or a weakened version of the whole virus.

Some of these vaccines use a new technology – they are mRNA vaccines. RNA is a chemical similar to DNA which carries genetic code – but while DNA is normally found in matching pairs of strands locked away in a cell’s nucleus, RNA is usually found as a single strand floating in the cell’s body. The ‘m’ stands for ‘messenger’ because RNA’s usual role is to instruct mechanisms in the cell to create new structures (proteins) or to duplicate genetic code. An mRNA vaccine instructs your own cells to make a charcteristic part of the invader you want to repel – in this case, your own body cells produce the same ‘spike’ protein that covid uses to infect your lungs. You can think of the cell nucleus as a ‘reference library’ which contains recipe books which can’t be removed (the DNA); when your cell needs to do something, it consults the recipe book, makes a ‘photocopy’ of the instructions using RNA, and then destroys the copy when no longer needed. The mRNA vaccine is slipping its own recipe into the pile of recipes which are routinely received from the cell nucleus and then destroyed.

Actually this new technology isn’t so new – it’s been trialled in animals since 1990. But a paper published in Nature in 2018 notes that it was only in the 2010s that we learned how to deliver mRNA into cells at the scale needed to work effectively as a vaccine. The problem is, there are several clean-up chemicals in our cells which make sure old mRNA isn’t left hanging around. The half-life (time for 50% to decay) of mRNA in the human body is about 7 hours. Now the special mRNA designed for the covid vaccine is a self-amplifying mRNA which means it includes a code telling cells to replicate it … so there’s a race between how quickly the cell can multiply it and how long it takes the cell’s natural clean-up mechanisms to degrade the mRNA until it doesn’t work any more. Making a strand of mRNA long enough to carry both the self-replicating instructions and the vaccine component means it’s quite a large and vulnerable molecule. Eventually the body’s clean-up mechanism will win, but I can’t tell you exactly how long that takes, because the vaccine company doesn’t seem to have published that data. The bottom line is that mRNA is a fairly new technology but it’s not one never tried before in humans – on the contrary, clinical trials of mRNA vaccines have taken place in humans, such as this 2018 flu vaccine trial.

Is there any danger that the genetic codes in these mRNA vaccines will somehow get embedded into our own genetic code? The short answer is ‘No’. The more accurate answer is ‘not enough to worry about’. The mRNA is only accessing our cell bodies, not penetrating the nucleus where our cells store their own DNA. And yet scientists almost never say ‘never’. Viruses do the same thing as mRNA vaccines – put their own genetic code into our cells to hijack them. And very rarely – so rarely that we have to look for evidence over thousands of years – a virus can get itself permanently written into our human DNA (see here and here). The chances of this happening from the covid vaccine are no greater than the chances of it happening from a covid infection. If the RNA code did somehow get written into our own DNA, first it would only affect the cell where it happened (though if that happened to be an egg or sperm cell that got fertilised, it would be in every cell in the new child’s body). Next, it would probably corrupt the DNA and make it unreadable. If it somehow got spliced into a sensible place, it would only have an effect when the genetic code in that part of the cell was activated. (Every cell in your body contains instructions on how to be muscle, skin, liver and brain. Since most cells spend their time not being all but one of the things they could be, a lot of code in them goes unprocessed.) As far as I can see there is no special risk of taking an experimental mRNA vaccine – certainly no greater than the risk that catching a cold could somehow rewrite your DNA!

There is, of course, one important ethical difference. If you catch a virus, despite your best efforts to practice good hygiene, you are not morally responsible for the consequences which you suffer. If a pharmaceutical company, physician and patient agree that the patient should receive an mRNA vaccine, then they all share moral responsibility for injecting that genetic code into the consenting individual. The odds of a runaway gene getting into the human genome through you are tiny – but not zero. Yet we accept much greater odds every time we get behind the wheel of a car – we are entering into a pact with other drivers, pedestrians, and parents of wayward children, that together we will not create a scenario where my driving has tragic consequences. Alas, we cannot always anticpate the unexpected, and if a large part falls off a car in front of me or a small child breaks away from her reins and dashes into the road, I may find myself unwillingly responsible for a crash or worse. Do we base our decision on which risks we will take on the size of the risk (which is logical) or the ‘smell’ of the risk, which feels worse when we have no experience to draw on?

Covid vaccines have now been developed by a number of different countries. They have been fast-tracked for approval, and there are some inevitable consequences. Can we tell you, based on evidence, what cumulative effects these vaccines will have after 5 years? No, because we haven’t had 5 years to run tests. Can we tell you what side-effects will appear at the one-in-a-million level? Not yet, though that data will be gathered as millions are vaccinated and marginal adverse effects are noticed. Have some things been done in parallel because of the the urgency which would otherwise have been done step-by-step? Yes. Is there an ethical requirement to give an effective vaccine to the “control” group of unvaccinated volunteers? Yes, when the evidence for safety and effectiveness passes certain thresholds. There will still be “natural control” groups of people unvaccinated for various reasons. Have the regulators “cut corners”? Not in the essential steps of what they have to test.

Is the risk of taking a vaccine greater than the risk from catching covid? Unless there are known reasons why a vaccine may be dangerous to an individual (e.g. a history of anaphylactic shock) the answer is no. The Oxford AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTec vaccines report that serious side effects occur in 1 in 100,000 cases. Moderna reports 1 in 1,000,000 but acknowledges the posibility of the vaccine causing temporary facial paralysis, more serious than the side effects reported for the other vaccines.

Let’s consider what would happen if I did or didn’t take the vaccine during the current lockdown conditions (obviously my risk of catching covid goes up when there’s no lockdown). The qcovid tool was calibrated during the first lockdown so is broadly applicable in the current lockdown. Let’s ask what would happen if I did or didn’t take a 95% effective vaccine. Or rather, let’s ask would would happen in roughly the next year (4 x 90 days) if a million people like me did or didn’t…

  • If a million people like me choose not to take the vaccine: 3,040 will need to go to hospital. 240 will die.
  • If a million people like me DO take a 95% effective vaccine: 152 will be in hospital because of covid. 10 might suffer serious side effects to the vaccine. 12 will die. (And that’s if lockdown measures stay as tight as they are. Looser measures will mean more hospitalisations and more deaths… on the other hand, if the vaccines turn out to make people significantly less able to spread the virus then the nunber of severe reactions and deaths will go down.)

So thanks to a vaccine, among the million people like me, 228 people will be saved from death; another 2,888 won’t need a hospital bed, but 10 will have a nasty experience of side effects.

Should we vaccinate children against covid? That’s an interesting question, and there’s a parallel with chickenpox. In the USA, all children are routinely vaccinated against varicella (the virus which cauhses chickenpox and shingles). In the UK, it’s NHS policy that only clinically vulnerable children, and elderly people, receive this vaccine. Chickenpox tends to be a mild disease in children, and provides a ‘natural booster’ for their parents. The parents’ immune systems get a reminder of what chickenpox looks like through contact with these children. This reminder helps to suppress dormant varicella which could otherwise emerge as shingles.

Based on US statistics for the first year of covid circulating, 12,329 children have been hospitalised with covid and 297 have died. Divergence in reporting between different States make this a little inaccurate, but as a ballpark figure, with 74 million children living in the USA, this means that in each million children, in the course of a year with partial lockdowns, 166 will go to hospital and perhaps 4 will die. Those 4 children probably represent children with underlying conditions who could have been singled out for vaccination (a similar study in the UK showed only 4 children died due to covid in the first peak and all had underlying conditions). So in a future where adults are vaccinated, and children are pretty safe from dying with covid, should children not be vaccinated in order to keep covid circulating at a level where the older vaccinated population gets a natural ‘boost’? There are too many uncertainties at present about the effects of vaccines on whether people can carry and transmit covid before their immune system clears it out, but at some stage we may face the question: if the whole of the older population is vaccinated, at what age should we start vaccinating? This will be about balancing the natural resilience of children and the need to keep the vaccinated population naturally boosted – if it turns out covid works the same way as chickenpox.

Finally, some ask whether it’s possible that taking a vaccine could actually make you have a worse reaction if you do catch covid. This is a genuine risk with some vaccines – it’s known as enhancement. This scientific paper from 2016 notes:

One concern of vaccination in humans is vaccine-mediated enhancement of disease, a process in which the disease following infection is more severe in vaccinated individuals than in unvaccinated individuals. Although this was observed in only a small subset of vaccine studies that were carried out for SARS-CoV and has not yet been observed in any of the published MERS-CoV vaccine studies, it is an important concern.

This in turn cites a paper which reviews the ‘small subset’; that report notes there is a indeed a significant history of coronavirus vaccines causing strong reactions… for vaccines developed for certain viruses which infect cats. So far as research has been carried out into coronaviruses which affect human respiration, “In the vast majority of studies, immunogenicity has been elicited without any negative impact on health after challenge with the virulent pathogen.” Or in plain English, the risk of a covid-19 vaccine provoking a strong reaction when the vaccinated person catches covid is tiny, but not zero. Remember that before vaccines are licensed for use, clinical trials have to prove that the vaccine is effective in ensuring that most people who would otherwise have had a serious reaction will instead experience mild or immeasurable symptoms; if signifcant numbers of people were going to have a severe reaction, it would have been noticed at that stage.

Embryonic Cell Lines

A particularly troubling matter for Catholics, and indeed all who respect the sanctity of human life, is the use of ‘cell lines’ derived from aborted foetuses in antiviral research. The most prominent cell line is HEK293, though other cell lines do exist. It’s worth telling the story of HEK293 to give it a context.

Frank Graham was studying cancer in 1973. Cancer is the general name given to any condition when cells in a creature (human or otherwise) stop doing what they are ‘supposed’ to do and start reproducing wildly. Several things can trigger cancer, including radiation, pollution and genetic defects. But certain kinds of virus can also trigger cancer, and Frank was studying a kind called adenovirus. He was working in the Netherlands, where elective abortion had become less restricted since 1966, and he chose to harvest cells from the kidneys of freshly aborted foetuses. His 293rd experiment – he started by treating 40 batches of cells at a time – succeeded in producing a line of cancer cells that could reproduce themselves indefinitely, leading to the serial number HEK 293 – Human Embryonic Kidney cell test 293. It turned out that part of the adenovirus had incorporated itself into the nucleus of the original HEK 293 cell, and also triggered duplications of existing chromosome material. (So this is a rare example of the DNA in a cell actually being modified – but of course this cell was only found because researchers were actively looking for it. If this had happened in a living human body, the cell would have become a tumour, the human would have died, and there would have been no long term consequences for the human race.)

Because HEK293 cells have a modified genetic code, they are not-very-useful for studying how normal human cells behave, but very useful for vaccine research. Adenoviruses tend to produce only mild illnesses in humans, so they are often tweaked to ‘look like’ more dangerous viruses and used as the basis of vaccines that way. But there’s always a risk that tweaking viruses can create some new strain that ‘goes wild’ so the research companies use a ‘safe’ version of adenovirus. Remember, there’s a little bit of the genetic code for adenovirus in every HEK293 cell. They realised that if they knock out that same part of the genetic code from their test virus and then grow it in a HEK293 cell, it would work because the missing instructions are already ‘in there’. But the tweaked adenovirus can’t grow in normal human cells so if it breaks free it can’t go anywhere!

There is no reason to believe that any abortions were coerced specifically to provide Frank Graham with research material; there were enough freely chosen abortions taking place. Graham himself is on record as saying he assumed it was an abortion performed to save a mother’s life because that was the only kind allowed in 1973, but in fact Dutch physicians had been allowed to interpret the existing law to permit abortion on much wider “mother’s wellbeing” grounds since 1967. The serial number 293 doesn’t indicate the number of abortions, but the number of dishes of cells trialled by the time of that experiment; even so, it is likely that material from several foetuses would have been needed to provide so many starting cultures. It has been suggested that the extraction of kidney material would have been carried out on a still-living foetus, causing it great pain; I have been unable to find documentation of Graham’s specific method. It is noteworthy that in 1972, the Peel report of the UK Parliament ruled that foetuses up to 20 weeks’ gestation were non-viable and therefore could be experimented on outside the womb; by 2019, there were conflicting theories on whether foetuses would begin to feel pain around 12, 20 or 24 weeks’ gestation.

Another commonly used human cell line, WI 38, comes from the 38th aborted foetus at the Wistar Institute. These cells have not become cancerous, and are therefore expected to lose their ability to reproduce after going through about 50 cycles of growth, but have become the common growth medium for rubella vaccine. An added controversy is that the mother of the 38th aborted foetus did not give her consent for the cells to be taken. More recently, a team of Chinese scientists created a new cell line (Walvax-2), and in 2015 openly documented the process. Nine candidate foetuses were identified, and aborted using the ‘water bag’ method, allowing their lung cells to be harvested. It is not made clear whether the ‘water bag’ meant the foetus was still alive at the point of harvesting.

When a vaccine is grown in one of these cell cultures, and then administered to a human patient, is it correct to say that ‘aborted tissue’ or ‘DNA from an aborted foetus’ or indeed ‘cancerous tissue’ (in the case of HEK293) is being injected? The process of cell division means that material from the original HEK293 cell has been shared out among the millions of cells produced by its immortal reproduction. The original DNA has been duplicated and reduplicated, but is still a near-perfect copy of what was in the aborted child.

There are roughly 1014 atoms in a human cell. 247 is a number of similar magnitude, indicating that by the time 47 divisions of the HEK293 cells have taken place, there will be, on average, one atom left from the original foetal cell in each daughter cell. There may be a profound ‘yuk factor’ in the notion that actual matter, even an atom, from the original foetus could still be present; but the moral significance remains even if the DNA is merely a copy. It is the heritage of today’s HEK293 cells, and the intentions behind their use (not where the actual molecules in them originate), which gives this material moral gravity.

Human cell lines currently used in the USA are noted by the reputable journal, Science with regard to covid-19 vaccines and vaccines against other viruses; the newly-approved one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses the PER.C6 cell line developed from retinal cells of an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985. Like HEK293, these cells have been immortalised so that they can be used indefinitely, without needing a fresh fetal source.

The UK Government acknowledges that vaccines in use in Britain make use of:

… human cell line … MRC5; these cells derive from the lung of a 14-week-old male fetus from a pregnancy that was terminated for medical reasons in 1966. This cell line is used to grow viruses for vaccines against rubella, chickenpox and hepatitis A. Other fetal cell lines, collected in the 1970s and 1980s, have been used for other vaccines, including influenza and some of the new COVID-19 vaccines. No fetal material is present in the final vaccine.

There is also the related question of whether aborted or cancerous DNA can have an adverse influence on those vaccinated. When HEK293 or other cell lines are used to grow ‘safe’ viruses to use as vaccines, the product is purified. It is the grown virus, not the HEK293 cells, which are being injected as the vaccine – and a process of purification takes place so that only the desired product ends up in the final vaccine. No purification process is perfect, however so it is acknowledged (and in the papers cited here) that there will be tiny fragments of DNA from the cell line cells still present. These are not complete codes, as in the case of the mRNA vaccine, so there is even less danger of them entering a genome and doing something meaningful – and as one of the pages cited points out, if it were easy for this to happen, scientists would have perfected genetic engineering a long time ago! We do now have tools which allow us to edit genomes (CRISPR-Cas9 technology) but the very fact we need a tool shows that the risk of natural editing taking place is small.

Vaccines which use a weak virus to imitate covid (or any other disease) are grown in cell line cells, so every dose of vaccine has been harvested from cells descended from the tissue of an aborted foetus. The dose no longer contains, except as trace fragments, any part of those cells. The new mRNA vaccines are not grown in this way, but may depend on knowledge from previous research using cell lines – and each batch off the production line is tested using cell-line cells. So there is a difference in degree of connection – some vaccine are grown in cell lines but others can be mass-produced by synthesizing RNA another way. Another ethical distinction can be made between vaccines reliant on HEK293 or PER.C6, which are capable of reproducing indefinitely, and those using other strains such as WI-38 and MRC-5 which will one day reach their reproduction limit; in the latter case, does use imply tacit recognition that one day a new abortion will be needed to replace the cell line?

Of course, it is possible that an ethical alternative may be found. Scientists have considered methods of taking cell samples from embryos without causing injury (though since this is of no direct benefit to the infant, there is a still a question of consent) – and in 2006 we learned how to take tissue from adult donors and regress it so it behaves like embyonic tissue (we call this induced pluripotency). You can now go to a medical supply shop and search for these iP Stem Cells! But the use of these adult-derived cells has not become standard; they have been used to research viruses including Zika and H1N1 flu, but the cell lines are unstable and tend to revert to their specialised parent cells after some generations.

The Ethics of Co-Operation

On certain matters, the Catholic Church offers a simple and clear moral teaching – some actions are wrong in all circumstances, period. One such action (technically, an “intrinsic evil”) is the destruction of an innocent human being, at any moment from conception to natural death.

On other matters, the Church does not dictate what her members can and cannot do, but sets out the values they should weigh in reaching their own conclusions. In 2003, an American pro-life activist asked the Vatican for guidance on whether she should permit her children to receive mandatory vaccinations which had been prepared using foetal cells. The reply came in 2005, and it first summarised the known vaccines at the time which used WI-38 or MRC-5 (there were no HEK293 vaccines mentioned), then set out general principles for co-operation.

  • Do you approve the immoral act?
  • Did you do something to enable it?
  • Did you fail to do something to oppose it?
  • Is your connection in space or time remote from the evil action?

The conclusion was that those who manufacture or market vaccines from embryonic cell lines are doing something ‘illicit’ but that when there was a proportionate reason to use such a vaccine to avoid grave illness, and no ethical alternative was available, a Catholic could accept such a vaccine for their children in good conscience, but under protest. A note from the Vatican in December 2020 affirmed that this conclusion also applied to covid vaccines – no-one should be obliged to receive them, but given the lethal potential of covid, non-vaccinated objectors had a grave responsibility to avoid spreading the virus, and Catholics could receive tainted vaccines in good conscience.

Some Catholics will question whether a there is a sufficiently grave reason to take the vaccine. There are four immediate reasons:

  • To protect one’s own health – but this is self-serving and could readily be sacrificed for ethical reasons.
  • To protect one’s dependents from the consequences of yourself being incapacitated or killed.
  • To reduce pressure on local intensive care services – if you avoidably take up the last ventilator bed, you may prevent another life from being saved.
  • To reduce the spread of the virus – but it’s not yet clear how effective vaccines are at doing this.

While the relationship of vaccines and virus transmission is yet to be determined, it’s clear that a person with no dependents nevertheless benefits society by taking a vaccine in order to reduce pressure on intensive care beds – beds which save lives. It seems to me that this is a sufficiently grave reason to receive a vaccine, under protest – but a Catholic with no dependents wishing to make a conscientious stand might equally decline intensive care treatment should they fall seriously ill with covid at a time of peak pressure on the local health service.

Some pro-life activists question whether it can ever be ethical to make use of a tainted vaccine. Surely, if the Vatican says that even even “passive material cooperation should generally be avoided” then there must be something wrong about such co-operation. But to undertake a wrong action is sin, and a Christian should never deliberately choose to sin. So can it ever be ethical to compromise? To this I would reply that there is a long tradition in the church which recognises that Our Lord offered ‘counsels of perfection’. Some choose to take vows of poverty, chastity and religious obedience – but the failure to do so is not a sin. So there is a grey area between ‘choosing what is most perfect’ and ‘choosing what is actually sinful’. Even Our Lord himself directed St Peter to pay tax to the Romans – allowing a coin with an idolatrous image of the emperor to be used to satisfy a public obligation. We know Our Lord did not sin, and yet he could tolerate this. So in the realms of remote co-operation, where a vaccine is needed for the common good, it is not automatically sinful for a Catholic to choose such a vaccine; but an individual Catholic whose conscience is clear that there is not a sufficient reason to accept the vaccine can, and should, refuse. Healthcare providers act disingenuously when they only point out that the Vatican has ‘permitted’ use of such vaccines; the teaching of the Church also endorses recourse to one’s conscience to weigh whether or not to actually accept the vaccine.

Crystal Clear

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B.

God loves us.

God tests us.

These two truths are uncomfortable to hold together.

Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer. The Jerusalem Bible, which we currently use for Mass in England, translates one phrase as “Do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one.” It reminds me that Pope Francis recently commented that God cannot tempt us to sin, but he does allow us to be tested. So we pray not to be tested, but we know that sometimes God will politely decline our request. We have only a promise in Scripture that we will not be tested “more than we can bear”.

On the mountain of transfiguration, Jesus is affirmed as God’s beloved Son – but even that doesn’t spare him from testing. We know that Lent is leading us towards Maundy Thursday, when Our Lord will face the temptation to run away from his crucifxion before it begins, and the agony of the Cross, when he will be dared to come down before it is finished.

Jesus, the beloved Son, had a choice. He chose to co-operate with his Father’s plan. Yes, today’s Second Reading says that the Father sent Jesus, his beloved son, to lay down his life for us. But in John’s Gospel we also see Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his own life – indeed, the literal translation would be, “I am the beautiful shepherd.” As we see Jesus today bathed in light on top of the holy mountain, consider his beauty! Could anyone be more loving than Jesus?

It’s a bit harder to see something beautiful in today’s first reading. We have another father and son on a mountain, and this son almost lays down his life, too – but perhaps not so willingly. Abraham believes that God has asked him to slaughter his beloved son, the very boy God gave Sarah as a miracle baby. He must be hoping that this is a test, and at some point God is going to offer him a get-out, but when they reach the top of the mountain, there’s no alternative yet. It’s at this point that the horrible truth becomes clear to Isaac – because now Abraham binds his son and pulls out his knife…

I’d like to be able to give you a neat explanation which tidies up this story.

Maybe I could tell you that in the ancient cultures around Abraham, it was a normal thing for a father to sacrifice a son to establish a dynasty, and Abraham thought that this would please the Lord too. But that makes no sense of the Bible declaring that God asked for the sacrfiice, or was pleased with Abraham’s obedience.

Maybe I could tell you that Isaac was a willing victim, happy to obey this terrible command from God; but that doesn’t make sense of the full story – we’ve only been given edited highlights today, but read the whole of Genesis 22 and you will discover that Isaac asks Abraham where they will find the lamb to be sacrificed. And if Isaac was a willing victim, he wouldn’t need to be bound.

Yes, I’d like to be able to give you a neat explanation which explains this Bible passage comfortably. But in the end, I can’t. I can only give you these truths which fit so uncomfortably together.

God loves us.

God tests us.

When we’re faced with something like this, we have a word for it: “Mystery”. Not a puzzle to be solved, but a provoking story inviting us to seek God’s message. And the mystery of the binding of Isaac is mirrored in the mystery of our daily lives. For although we believe that God loves us, we may experience more often the truth that God tests us. And I recently came across a true story which mirrors this mystery.

Crystal McVea had every reason to be angry with God. I won’t share the details of the things that happened to her in her childhood, but they were horrible. She cried out to God, but no help seemed to come. She often boasted that should she ever meet God, she would ask him all the why why why questions. And she got her opportunity. She died.

Or rather, she didn’t die. But she was clinically dead for nine minutes and returned with a remarkable story of meeting God. Now no-one can prove that these ‘near death experiences’ are genuine spiritual experiences, but I think this one’s worthy of a hearing, because of its because powerful impact on her life.

Crystal was confronted with the beauty of God, and suddenly understood so many things about his plan for her life. In that light, all questions fell away from her lips except one. Why… oh why… didn’t I do more for you during my lifetime? In that moment of encounter, God showed Crystal a small girl radiant with light, literally playing in the rivers of light in heaven; and Crystal filled with love for this person before realising who it was – it was herself, as seen through God’s eyes. I won’t read out her words here and now; it’s easy to find her speaking for herself, online. But it was through seeing the glory of God, and her own radiance as a child of God, that she found peace with God despite the many, many tests she had endured in her life. Crystal returned from that experience knowing that her horrible past made sense as part of the loving plan of God; she also found strength to embrace a better present, forgiving her enemies and putting her trust in God. That’s the power of God’s beauty.

I can’t explain the mystery of how the Binding of Isaac was a necessary part of God’s plan. But I trust that it was, and one day we will understand, just as we will appreciate all the trials of our life in these times. Though God covers you with shadow, remember the light!

God loves us.

God tests us.

Jesus, I trust in you.