Great Expectations: Connect

connectHomily at St Philip Evans, for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2016.

Once again, I’d like to invite the children preparing to make their First Holy Communion next summer to come and sit together at the front.

How many of you have brothers or sisters living at home with you?

How many of you never argue with your brothers or sisters?

How many of you argue with your brothers or sisters pretty much every day?

Being part of the Church is like being part of a really big family. There will be some people you’ll get on with really well. There’ll be other people you won’t get on with at all.

Once, at priest training college, there was a student who asked me to help him with a particular project. He wasn’t someone I naturally clicked with as a friend. But he had asked for my help, and I persevered. Slowly a real friendship grew. It is within our power to make any stranger into a friend!

St Paul talked about “tolerating” other people the way Jesus did. Often when I read the stories of Jesus, I imagine him looking at his disciples and having a face-palm moment: “Don’t you lot get the idea yet?” – but He persevered.

Sometimes we are stuck with people we don’t get on with – in school, or in our First Communion class. One of the most important things we have to learn is to be kind and helpful to people we don’t like.It’s easy to be kind to people we do like. Everybody does that! Jesus came to teach us to be kind to the people who get on our nerves!

St Therese of Lisieux was so irritated by the way one nun clicked her rosary beads, she made a firm resolution to be extra-kind to that sister so that no bitter feelings could poison that relationship. When St Therese died, the clicky nun was very surprised to read that in St Therese’s journal – from the way she’d been smiled at, she thought she was one of the saint’s favourite sisters!

Last week, I promised to talk about six words which are our Catholic family values. This week’s word is CONNECT. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that the first Christians were faithful to “meeting together”. Why? Our task is to build a community where every person is loved. Sometimes we do that by helping strangers in need. But the best way to love our neighbours is by spending time getting to know them – especially the ones we don’t naturally get on with. So we have to do more than just be kind to people when we are in school in church or in First Communion class. We must choose to spend time with other Catholics because they are Catholics. If you’re in a Catholic School, that’s easy! But the grown-ups aren’t, so I need a word with them for a moment.

Our Parish Mission theme was “Great Expectations”. I believe that God has certain expectations of us as members of His Church. I believe that God expects us to more than just attend Mass together. Imagine a family where all the members went to the cinema together, but never spoke to each other when they got home! That would be a really dysfunctional family. We can do better than that!

I would like each of you to think of one way you could have a conversation with Catholics, because they are Catholics, at least once a month. Here are some ideas:

  • Come to coffee after Mass on the second Sunday of each month.
  • Come to Alpha or Call to Question, or one of the Homegroups I will be putting in place after Christmas.
  • Have a chat with the person who is sitting next to you after Mass.
  • Join an organisation like the Union of Catholic Mothers (for women), or the Catenians or the Knights of Columba (for men).
  • Invite a member of you own family to have a faith-filled conversation. If they go to Mass somewhere else, you could even compare notes on the sermons you heard this weekend!

The prophet Isaiah had a vision of a perfect society of peace – the lion and the lamb lying down together.

St Paul wrote to the Romans with a vision of an imperfect society – one that needed toleration. We people who belong to the Church are not perfect. You might have heard the saying: “The Church is full of sinners – and there’s always room for one more!”

A preacher often has to speak about the way we behave. There are some behaviours which are not welcome in a Church community. But there must be no PEOPLE who are unwelcome in a Church community. Even the Pharisees and Sadducees were welcome in John the Baptist’s community, as long as they were willing to truly change.

My vision of a Christian society is one where we choose to meet with other Catholics on a regular basis. If we don’t do that yet, that might be a change God is asking us to make in 2017. Where, when and how we do this will be different for each one of us. But it is a choice we can all make, and review each year. Only connect!

Now, back to the children. I have a challenge for you. If you are at St Bernadette’s school, I’d like you to talk to at least one pupil from St Philip Evans school each week. And the same the other way round! By the end of the First Communion course, can you find someone who supports the same sports team, or has the same hobby as you? Be careful – I might check up after Easter!


Great Expectations: Explore

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the First Sunday of Advent, 2016.

I’d like to begin today by inviting the children preparing for their First Holy Communion to come forward. Children, on your first communion day, what kind of clothes are you going to wear? [They will answer, clothes like wedding dresses and wedding suits.]

Do you know why we use wedding dress for First Communion? That only makes sense if we know our Catholic history.

100 years ago, 75 years ago, and perhaps 50 years ago (though things were starting to change then), almost everyone in our country agreed that a wedding marked the beginning of a new family. When a young man and a young woman liked each other, they could go dating, eat together, go dancing together – but they didn’t start living in the same house together until their wedding day. So back then, a wedding wasn’t only a special celebration in the life of a family – it marked a new beginning. From the wedding day on, a brand-new family lived together, at first just a couple, and then hopefully children would come along. The world we live in today has lots of other different ideas about marriage, but in the Catholic Church we hold on to this idea that God’s plan is that a man and a woman first make promises to each other in church, ask for God’s blessing, and then move in together and start a family.

Some of you children have been coming to church since you were babies. Some of you have only started coming in the last few weeks because you want to make your First Holy Communion. Either way, I’m really glad that you’re here with us today. Our job, in the next few months, is to prepare you not only for your First Communion Day, but for the next step of your life as members of St Philip Evans Parish. The reason you wear wedding dress on First Communion Day,  is because it’s the first day of your new life as a connected member of our Parish Family.

exploreEach family has its own rules and values. Last summer, I visited an old college friend who’s got children now, and on his fridge door was a big piece of paper, the “D**** family values”. Over the next few weeks I want to share with you our St Philip Evans Family Values, and the first one is on this banner – it says “explore”.

Some of you were at the Mission Mass at St Philip Evans School recently. What did I give some of the pupils and adults to wear? L-plates, because we are Learners, and D-plates because we are Disciples!

The prophet Isaiah imagined a time to come when people would go to the Temple to learn God’s teaching. Jesus walked among us as a Teacher – the only perfect Teacher of God’s message. He commanded his followers to go and make disciples of all nations. The words “learner” and “disciple” are connected, and that’s quite easy to see in Welsh. In fact, all of us who are followers of Jesus are entitled to display a D-plate! If we’re not “dysgwyr” [learners], we’re not Christians!

So our first St Philip Evans Family Value is to “explore” what Jesus taught us. Most of you are blessed to be in Catholic School so you can spend lots of time in the classroom thinking about Jesus and his stories. I know some of you go to Catechism Class on a Saturday afternoon once a month – how many? When you finish your First Communion Class, the rest of you could join them and do Catechism once a month and know Jesus better.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need a word with the grown-ups.

These days, anyone working in a serious job is required to take part “continuing professional development” – to prove they have carried on learning and updating their knowledge and can still work effectively. If that’s important for our earthly work, how much more important is it to prepare us for heaven! So how do we do our “Continuing Faith Development”? Do you ever read the Bible or a Christian book on a regular basis? Do you ever go to a church event that includes an interesting talk or exhibition?

One important thing we need to re-learn is the value of Christian marriage. It’s easy for us to get sucked into the values of the world around which says, “Move in together, start a family, save up and have a big wedding party later.” But our vision is different. When we put God first, a wedding is about a church service which asks for God’s blessing on a new family; save the big party to mark your 10th anniversary if you can’t afford one straight away. But we also believe in second chances in the Catholic Church. Sometimes I meet parents who think that because they’ve already had children, they are not allowed to get married in church. But that’s wrong! It’s never too late to put things right in God’s eyes, and I’ve helped plenty of couples who already have children to make their vows in church. It’s also worth remembering that once you are a baptised Catholic, you must get married in a Catholic Church or with the Church’s permission, otherwise it doesn’t count as far as the Church is concerned.

I don’t want to focus only on marriage. It was one of the things important to Jesus, but there are lots of other things Jesus taught, too. After Christmas, there’ll be lots of opportunities here to explore this. If you can come weekly, the Alpha Course will start on Tuesday nights. If you can come monthly, there’s Call to Question. I’m also thinking of starting a fortnightly group after Monday morning Mass for people who find daytime easier than evenings. We can’t live well as Christians unless we know the teaching of Jesus, and a short 7-minute slot at Sunday Mass isn’t long enough to go into things deeply. We no longer live in a world where Christian values are all around us. We need to take time to listen to Jesus and think about how we do what he asks in our daily lives. Remember, that Jesus warns us that he may come back at an hour we do not expect! If he finds that we have been studying the Bible, the lives of the saints, or the teaching of the church, he will not find fault with us – as long as we are putting into practice what we have learned!

What does the word Disciple mean? LEARNER!

What do you have to be to be a good learner? A LISTENER!

What will you do after Christmas to listen to the teaching of Jesus? That’s up to you, but do something. EXPLORE!

Keep Calm, and Follow Jesus

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

kc1We live in uncertain times. By a small majority, the UK voted to leave the European Union, but no-one quite knows how that’s going to work out.

America has just elected Donald Trump as its president and that too will lead to a time of change.

On this weekend of Remembrance, we recall that 100 years ago, Britain was at war with Germany and her allies. That war was won, but more conflict followed. Sixty years ago, during the Second World War, British civil servants had to prepare for the worst. What if Britain suffered a heavy Nazi bombardment? A series of advisory posters was prepared, but never used. Now, with the safety of half a century between us and the danger, those posters have seen the light of day, and been reproduced on everything from T-shirts to mugs. The words of wisdom? “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

We human beings are good at worrying. Have you noticed how most of the things we give energy to worrying about, never actually happen?

Each of today’s readings is an invitation, in its own way, to keep calm and follow Jesus.

The prophet Malachi speaks of a Day of Judgment coming as a burning fire – but for those who love God, it will be a healing light.

St Paul warned the busybodies in Thessalonica not to get over-excited about what other Christian believers were doing but, well, to keep calm and carry on!

In Jesus’ own time, in the face of a changing world, the Lord said: “Do not be frightened. Your endurance will win you your lives.”

It’s not only the Bible which urges us to avoid worry and fear. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy offered similar advice in an even more pithy form: the words “Don’t Panic!” – written in big friendly letters on the front cover.

How, then, can we keep calm and follow Jesus? Another word for a follower is a “disciple”, which comes from the Latin word for “learner”. How do we “sit at the feet of Jesus” to understand his teachings better?

During our Parish Mission, we had daily opportunities to explore our faith. Each morning, a different member of the Mission Team shared the story of how they came to faith. On the evenings of the Celebration Week, through the spoken word and through movement, we were given a deeper teaching than we have time for in the homily at Sunday Mass.

It’s unusual to have a whole week of such events in our parish, and that won’t happen again for a generation. But it’s normal for a community of Christians to take time once a week, once a fortnight, or at least once a month, to explore more deeply what the Bible says or what our Church teaches. The Mission was called “Great Expectations”. God expects, and your Parish Priest expects, that each one of us will take time at least once a month to explore our faith and to connect with other members of our community beyond the limited social contact we have by attending Mass.

One way of exploring faith is through an Alpha Course. We’re going to run an Alpha weekly on Tuesday evenings from early January. If you’d like to find out more about that, and especially if you are willing to help with the practical side, there’s a meeting in the Small Hall this Tuesday evening.

Not everyone is able to make the time for a weekly commitment, so as well as Alpha, we will soon begin running “Connect & Explore” groups. When will these run? Mornings, afternoons or evenings? Weekly, monthly, fortnightly? That depends on you. I have some survey forms for everyone willing to get involved. Some of you already filled them in earlier this week, but the altar servers will bring them now to anyone who needs one.

There’s a story about a saint, perhaps it was Saint Francis, who was busy sweeping the floor of his churchyard, when a rumour spread around the town that Jesus was going to come back in one hour. Some of the villagers rushed to confession. Others went to make peace with their enemies. Still others sank to their knees to spend the last hour of their lives in deep prayer. But Saint Francis? He just carried on sweeping the floor, comfortable in the knowledge that he was already living his life in the way the Lord expected.

This weekend we remember those who gave their tomorrow for our today, and we offer prayers for their souls.

But let’s also remember the One who laid down his life for us and invited us to follow him. In an uncertain world, the very best thing we can do is stay close to Jesus. We do that through prayer, through serving Him in the poor – and by gathering to explore his teachings. As long as our life is in balance on that score, we have nothing to fear. In short, let’s remember that our Heavenly Father has sent his Beloved Son and asked us to listen to him. Let’s “Keep Calm, and Follow Jesus.”

Life After Death

Homily at St Paul’s for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

“When I awake, I shall be filled with the sight of your glory!”recon

What does happen to us when we die? Many people who have been brought back from the brink of death talk about seeing a “light at the end of the tunnel”. Some report meeting God and being told it’s not their time yet. A few people have reported a vision which seems more like Hell than like Heaven.

It’s good to keep an open mind about these reports. Science suggests good reasons why a brain starved of oxygen might experience “tunnel vision” and human imagination is quite capable of wishful thinking or self-condemnation. Even so, there are certainly some powerful stories around, not least from an Anglican vicar I know who prayed for a 19-year-old teenager killed in a motorcycle accident… the boy woke up in the morgue the next morning having had such a powerful religious experience that he joined a church and got baptised soon afterwards!

If we put our trust in what God has said through the Bible, what can we be sure of? When our church leaders put together all the relevant bits of the Bible, what we know goes like this:

  • On the day we die, our souls are judged immediately by God – or some would say that we judge ourselves in comparison to the pure love we see in God. Either way, we can go in one of three directions.
    • For those truly repentant of their sins who do not need to be greatly purified, they go straight to heaven. These are the souls we celebrated on All Saint’s Day.
    • For those who call on God’s mercy but who need significant purification, they go to Purgatory until they are ready for heaven. Those are the souls we remember on All Soul’s Day, and for whom we offer Masses.
    • For those who have not chosen God’s mercy, God allows them to be separated from his loving presence, and this we call Hell.
  • We believe that Our Lord and Our Lady already have bodies in heaven – this is why we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption of Blessed Mary. The rest of us live there as souls without bodies. We may be full of questions about how that works – the Sadducees in today’s Gospel certainly were, and they tried to trip up Jesus. But he insisted that heaven was real, and left the details to God. Will husbands and wives be re-united in heaven? As long as they have accepted God’s mercy, yes – but not to live as a couple in the heavenly Jerusalem. Like all the saints, they will be members of the body of Christ. They will not love their earthly spouse any less; but the love they give to Jesus and receive in return from Jesus will be immeasurably greater than we can know in even the best marriage on earth.
  • One day in the future, this world as we know it will come to an end. Will that happen through a natural disaster or by God intervening in an amazing miracle? We don’t know. But we are so certain that this will happen that every Sunday in the Creed we assert: “We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” When this happens, God will raise every soul who has ever lived and give them a new and everlasting body – or for those who are still alive on earth when this happens, their earthly body will be transformed. This is the moment we call the Last Judgement. Those whose souls were already in Hell, or were alive at the end of the world but had not chosen God’s mercy, will be sent bodily into Hell. Everyone else will be welcomed into what the Bible calls the “new heaven and new earth”.

What Our Lord says today is an uncomfortable message if you are married, even more so if you are widowed. But… don’t panic! If you are in a second marriage, relax. There can be no jealously in heaven. You can hope to be there with both your earthly spouses, and there will be no unpleasantness.

Our Christian faith is not wishful thinking. If it were, we would believe that married couples live happily-ever-after in heaven, and the Sadduccees would have a valid point. So here is a useful check of where your faith comes from. If you believe in heaven because the alternative is too horrid to imagine, open your ears to Jesus! Believe in it because he rose from the dead. If you need to, ask him to increase your love for Him!

Today’s reading also reminds us that there is such a thing as a “fate worse than death”. When a human being is martyred, that is a tragedy for the family they leave behind, but a triumph in being faithful to God. As the familiar reading from Wisdom says, “their going seemed like a disaster, but they are at peace”. And remember that Leon Bloy once wrote, “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”

Your loved ones are alive to God. The dead will rise again. Not only will you see them again, but you, and they, are destined to be given new and glorious bodies which will never perish. As for where that body goes, that’s up to the choices you make on earth. Whatever happens, we can be sure of this: “When we awake, we shall be filled with the sight of God’s glory!”

Great Expectations: Peacemaking

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 31st Anniversary of the Dedication of the Church and the start of the parish Sion Community Mission – 22 & 23 October 2016. great-expectations-logo

At the start of Mass: Our Church was solemnly dedicated by Archbishop Ward on 25 October 1985. Today, on the nearest weekend, we celebrate another year of the life of our parish community, but we also mark a new beginning, as we enter our Parish Mission. Previously, on this Dedication festival, I have asked you to make a point of exchanging the sign of peace by name. This year, not only for today but throughout our Mission, I am inviting you to take one more step. On the pews in front of you are pens and name badges. I invite you to write your name on a badge and wear it not only today, but whenever you come to a church event throughout the next two weeks of our Parish Mission.

Now please turn to greet, by name, the people in front of, and behind you.

Normally, we would call to mind our sins at this moment. I’m going to hold that back until the middle of Mass today – so let us enter into our celebration with a great song of praise, the Gloria!

Homily: This church is full of sin!

Look! There is the confessional! Every week, sinners come and leave their sins at the feet of a priest.

Look! Here is our altar, dedicated 31 years ago. Whenever we gather around this altar to celebrate Mass, we begin with a moment to “call to mind our sins”. The Lord forgives all our little sins, and we leave them here.

Look! Above us, the great Crucifix, the sign of Christ taking on his shoulders all the sins of the world! When we celebrate Mass, Calvary becomes present on this altar, making present not only our personal sins, but all the sins of the human race!

Look! Gathered here, a throng of people! I don’t know what sins you are conscious of in your heart, but you do – and God does, too.

Yes, my dear brothers and sisters, we must acknowledge a terrible truth: our Church is a magnet for sin.

But I have good news. God can do something about it!

Why do we have a solemn celebration for the Anniversary of the Dedication of a Church? It’s a natural, human thing to want to mark another year of our being here with a celebration, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s another reason, too. In the Hebrew Bible, the Jewish people were commanded to keep an annual commemoration of the Dedication of their Temple – the solemn observance of Yom Kippur. Our First Reading today was an extract from the instructions given for that day.

Yom Kippur was the one day in the year when the High Priest was commanded to enter the Holy of Holies, the inner chamber of the Temple. First, the High Priest offers a sacrifice for HIS OWN SIN – it’s a bull. (You may be pleased to know that I myself went to confession on Friday; you may also be relieved to learn that no livestock were injured on my behalf!)

Next, the High Priest makes an offering to take away the sin of all the people of Israel – it’s a goat. But what happened to the other goat? If I had included a longer reading from Leviticus, we would have heard how the priest was to speak all the sins of the people over the head of that goat, and it would then be driven out into the wilderness. It was the original scapegoat. That’s where the term comes from!

Today, we mark the Dedication of our own Temple, this Church of St Philip Evans. It’s also the beginning of our first ever Parish Mission. It struck me that today ought to be for us a new beginning. God doesn’t want us to be tied down by sins and problems from the past. We haven’t had a perfect history as a parish. Before I became your parish priest, the life of this parish was marked by some very serious disagreements. As human beings, our natural reaction is to ask “Who started  it?” and seek an apology. But that’s not God’s way. No, the question God asks is “Who is willing to end it?” – in today’s Gospel we heard these words:

“If you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first.”

This matters! In fact, it matters so much that St Paul wrote that “anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will be behaving unworthily towards the body and blood of the Lord.” The Communion that we receive at Mass is only a Holy Communion when we have made peace with all the members of our community.

Making the first move for peace might seem unfair. What Our Lord did on the Cross was not fair – it was the greatest act of generosity in the history of the human race. He took on himself all our sins. We are asked to imitate him in a very small way, making peace without the satisfaction of an apology.

Often enough there’s no possibility of an apology. We are human beings from different cultures, different nations, and different ways of thinking. Two people can approach the same situation, or even hear the very same words spoken, and interpret things in very different ways. Each person has their own integrity, and might do what they believe to be right – and still conflict comes, because our perspective is so different. This is why God doesn’t ask “Who started it?” but only “Who will make peace?”

Let me begin with myself. At seminary, we’re taught to become aware of our own character faults and weaknesses. I know that I have strong gifts for organising things, but I’m not always sensitive to other people’s feelings. It’s quite possible that at times I have been insensitive and not even realised the hurt I’ve caused. If I have hurt anyone in the three years I have been here by things I have said, done, or failed to do, I ask your forgiveness.

Then, on behalf of all the clergy. All priests and deacons are human beings, capable of having bad days and being tempted. To anyone who has ever been offended by the words, actions or inactions of any minister, I apologise in the name of the Church.

Finally, on behalf of Mother Church herself. Sometimes we feel let down by what the Church has done as an institution, or its failure to be the kind of Church we hoped it would be. But whenever we are part of something bigger, things won’t always go the way that we wish for, and this calls for great patience on our part. Will you forgive the Catholic Church for not being perfect on earth?

The Book of Leviticus lists many kinds of sacrifice that could be made in the Jewish Temple. Some were for the cleansing of individual people. Some were for the whole community. Some were even for the cleansing of the land. God waits for us to ask, before He uses His divine power to free us from the consequences of sin. So today, let us ask! If we are involved in any conflict, great or small, with people inside or outside this parish, let’s decide, right now, to make the first move for peace.

I’m going to celebrate, now, the same rite of blessing and sprinkling holy water which we keep at the Easter Vigil. One of the questions I will ask is whether you believe in “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”. When I come among you sprinkling Holy Water, this will be a prayer for cleansing of the parish, that God will free us from all the spiritual effects of all the sins confessed in this church in the past, and all the spiritual baggage from conflicts which we, as members of the body of Christ, have been part of. If you are ready to make peace, if you are ready to receive this new beginning of spiritual cleansing, I invite you to receive the gift of Holy Water with open palms.

After the sprinkling rite:

There’s one loose end from our First Reading. What about the two rams, one for the priest, one for the people? These were “holocaust offerings”, every part was to be offered in sacrifice to God, holding nothing back. God had great expectations of the people of Israel – they were to be totally dedicated to God, trusting God for everything, giving God the very best of what they owned.

In a moment, we’ll do what we do every week – we will take a collection. Let’s remember that what we give in money is an act of worship, an offering to God. But also, while the collection goes on, I am going to pass around this clipboard. We want to give God an offering of prayer while members of our Mission Team are visiting people at home this week. Could you sign up for half-an-hour of prayer one day this week? If you can, please book your slot – and the clipboard will be brought up with our other gifts as part of our offering to God.

Holy Ground

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time

I found this in the back room. It doesn’t look like much – but it’s very heavy!

We used to have a rule in the Church that we could only celebrate Mass on an altar stone – a dedicated piece of marble with the relics of saints sealed inside it. When the priest was celebrating a house Mass or a school Mass, this would have to be placed on the table, with the bread and wine to be consecrated, placed on top.

In 1983, when the Catholic Church updated its law code in the West, this rule was dropped. Now I can celebrate Mass on any suitable table. Did we need the old rule? Yes and no. Yes, we needed something to remind us that when we celebrate Mass, we’re doing something profoundly holy. No, we didn’t need a rule that created practical difficulties for celebrating Mass when it was needed.

In today’s First Reading, Na’aman does a curious thing. He asks for two baskets of soil from Israel to take home to Syria! He believed that the god who had cured him was a local god in Israel, who could only be worshipped on Israeli soil. But we know that the whole earth belongs to God: wherever we stand, the ground is already holy ground!

It’s good to have special places and things which we recognise as holy. Often, I’m asked to bless rosaries, statues and medals. Doing this gives honour to God. But you can still pray with a rosary that hasn’t been blessed, and if you wear an unblessed medal as a sign of faith, God honours your faith!

When we celebrate Mass now, we don’t use an altar stone, but we do use this – a corporal. The name comes from the Latin for body, corpus. Now, not a stone but a cloth marks the place where the Body and Blood of Jesus will become present. Like many things in our religious services, it has a dual purpose – one is practical, one symbolic. The practical purpose is to catch crumbs, tiny particles of the Blessed Sacrament. This is why our altar servers – I hope you’re listening! – are always supposed to fold it inwards, and then carry it flat away from the altar, never to flick it out into the air! The symbolic purpose is to mark out a Holy of Holies within the space on the altar, just as the ancient Jewish Temple had its Holy of Holies, where the High Priest went only once a year, within the larger Holy Place where the priests offered sacrifice every day.

Do we need holy things? Yes and no. No, we can pray to God any place, any time, any way, without needing any special equipment. God is as close as our next breath. But yes, if we have an Icon Corner or a Bible Corner in our home, or a holy table in our classroom at school, these things can help to remind us to stop and turn to God in our daily life.

In today’s Gospel, ten lepers cry out to Jesus for mercy. He sets them a challenge. “Go and show yourself to the priest!” Now it was written in the Jewish Law that when lepers seemed to be healed, they had to go to a priest who would confirm they were free of disease, and they could make a thanksgiving offering. But here it seems that the lepers only got healed after taking that first step of faith on the journey towards the Temple – daring to go there even while they were still unclean!

Then there’s this one foreigner, who turns back to give thanks to Jesus. Does that mean the point of the story is “Don’t forget to say thank you”? Yes – and no. Yes, Jesus commends him for giving thanks. But perhaps there’s something deeper, too. “Go and show yourself to the priest.” Perhaps the Samaritan recognised that Jesus is truly a High Priest. The others were comfortable with the old law which said the priests were in the Temple in Jerusalem. That wasn’t wrong – but they were so used to doing things that way that they couldn’t see that Our Lord was a priest too!

We get comfortable with our old ways and can feel unsettled when our Church changes the rules about things. Do we have to abstain from meat on Fridays? How long do we have to fast before receiving Holy Communion? Which days, apart from Sundays, are Holy Days when we have to attend Mass? What’s the response to “The Lord Be With You?” Just when we think we know what we’re supposed to do to be a “good Catholic”, the bishops go and change the rules! But these rules are about external things. If we’re bothered by changes like this, it might be telling us that we know how to be a Catholic, but not why. That’s a challenge to us to find out!

Jesus met the lepers when he was on the borderland between Galilee and Samaria. All of us have borderlands, the interface between the things we know and are comfortable with, and things which are unknown and unfamiliar. The Parish Mission coming up at the end of this month is an invitation to expand our borders, to become familiar with new things.

Lots of things will try and get in our way. Our doubts will say that it’s not important, it’s too complicated, and we’re not worthy. But it is important, it’s not too complicated, and although we are unworthy of God’s love, we have the wonderful words from the letter to Timothy: “Christ is faithful, even when you are unfaithful.” Let’s expand our borders, commit ourselves to the coming mission, and get to know our faith so well that we will never feel disturbed at changes to things which are merely external! We don’t need soil from Israel, or an altar stone – but let us always remain faithful to our Rock, Jesus Christ. Amen!


Messengers from Heaven!

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

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

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

Well, maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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