Today, the Sion Community Mission in Merthy Tydfil comes to an end. Today, the mission of the Roman Catholic Parish of Merthyr begins anew, because the Lord has work for this parish to do. So keep calm, and carry on!
But carry on doing what?
Consider Moses. Today’s first reading is a brief episode from his life. Now, Moses experienced a few days of great triumph in his life – the day God spoke to him from a Burning Bush, the day when Pharaoh, King of Egypt, finally allowed the Israelites their freedom, or the day God spoke to him and handed down the Ten Commandments. But Moses also knew days of great grief – the day he became a refugee after killing an Egyptian slave-driver, or the day when the Israelites worshipped an idol, and he learned he would have to lead them through the wilderness for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land. But I expect during those 40 years, most of Moses’ days were the same-old same-old, getting on with the everyday task of leading a community, fed by manna from heaven. In the same way, the future of this parish will include days of great triumph, days of great grief, but above all the routine of priest and people gathering together, Sunday by Sunday, fed by the Bread of Heaven.
Moses didn’t receive all his inspiration directly from God, though. He also had to keep his eyes on the world around him. We’re told that whenever Moses raised his hands, the Israelites did well in the battle. Whenever he let them droop, they started losing. No prophet came to tell Moses he had to keep his arms in the air – he learned from experience which of his actions has a positive effect, and which had a negative effect. You’ve probably heard the saying that ‘insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting a different result’. One of the ways the Lord speaks to us is through reality – we use the eyes and the brains we’ve been given to reflect on the work that we’ve done.
So our question today, is where do you go next, priest and people working together? I can’t tell you exactly what you need to do in this parish, because it’s not my parish. But when I was training to be a priest, I did live for four months just west of here, in Aberdare. I met a lot of elderly ladies who belonged to the various chapels in the town. Those chapels can seat hundreds of people, and were extended after the great Welsh Revival of 1904. But now a handful of ladies worship there, and they use the back room because they can’t afford to heat, let alone repair, the main worship space.
I’m no prophet, but I’m going to use the brain God has given me to imagine three ways the future could unfold here. Some of us don’t like thinking about the future – we’d prefer to be an ostrich and bury our head in the sand – but Moses and his supporters had to imagine a better future so they could secure success for their people.
The first future is the one where you carry on doing things just the way you’re used to doing them.
We can get a bit superstitious about the way our Church works. We can relax and think, “As long as we baptise and confirm the children, they will come back eventually.” But that would be naïve. 50 years of experience is telling us that in most cases, they don’t come back. Moses didn’t say “I will let my arms droop, God will win the battle eventually.” Rather, his support team saw what was working and said, “We’ll keep your arms aloft for as long as it takes until we win this battle.”
So yes, we need to persevere and persist in doing what it takes to keep this parish going… but if we keep on doing what we’ve done, we’ll keep on getting what we’ve got. And what have we got? Not only in Merthyr, but across Wales, the Catholic Church is very good at losing old people slowly, and young people quickly. I’ll say that again: the Catholic Church is very good at losing old people slowly, and young people quickly. If we keep on doing what we’ve done, we’ll keep on getting what we’ve got. Is that what you want in Merthyr?
If we carry on with “church as usual”, the congregations in your four churches will continue to shrink slowly. The income for each church will go down as fewer people give. Now, it’s an expensive business, keeping a church open. I’ve been running parishes in South Wales for 12 years and I can tell you that each building costs around £15,000 a year for annual running costs – insurance, fire extinguisher servicing, other safety inspections and so on. And that’s before all the big, expensive jobs like fixing roofs and replacing gutters which have to be done once in a generation. So you will reach a point, like the pious ladies of Aberdare, where you have to have Mass in the sacristy or close the church altogether.
You can choose this future – you can choose to be turkeys hoping that Christmas will never come. But Christmas does come eventually, and turkeys never enjoy it.
The second future is one where you decide to make more efficient use of your resources, coming together in one or two buildings. That could be a new building, which would be a fresh start for everyone, or some of you could bravely choose to transfer to a church which doesn’t have the comfort of being your ‘home’ church. You could then use the annual running costs which you’ve saved to invest in the future of the parish – employing a professional musician or a children’s liturgy worker.
Making such changes reminds me of a flock of geese, migrating from one place to another. You’ve probably seen geese flying through the sky, in a V-formation. One goose is out in front, with the hardest task. That goose has to break through the air, creating a slipstream, and lead the others in the right direction. The other geese can honk from behind to encourage the leader to keep going. Only by working together and following the leader can the flock make a safe migration.
Today’s Gospel clearly points us to the need to be persistent. In preparing this homily I asked Canon Barry what the most helpful thing would be to keep the parish going, and he mentioned the need for more resources. So here’s a question for you. I can either give you a golden egg, or a goose that lays golden eggs. Which of you would prefer the egg? And which would prefer the goose? The egg represents fundraising activities. You can choose to pour your limited resources into fundraising activities – coffee mornings, jumble sales and the like – and yes, you will raise some money. Once you’ve spent it on building repairs you have to start over and do the same thing again. The goose represents missionary work. That’s harder to do. You have to look after the goose, and it might kick and hiss a bit. But if you pour your limited resources into inviting people who have no previous connection with the Catholic Church, or working with Catholics who have fallen out of practice to help them come back, then you raise the number of regular givers in the congregation – more geese laying more golden eggs!
Before I tell you about the third possible future, a story. One day an egg fell into a turkey nest. The mother turkey sat on the egg until it hatched and raised the chick. The chick followed all the other turkeys, scratching around for food on the ground, until one day a golden eagle swooped down from the sky. “Hello!” she said, “What are you doing down here? You’re not a turkey, you’re an eagle like me.” And for the first time in his life, the chick flapped his wings, soared into the sky, and discovered a beautiful valley below, filled with luscious food and beautiful things.
The third future is one where we ask some big questions. “What makes Catholic parishes flourish?” The good news is, there are Catholic parishes which are growing, some growing in strength, some growing in number. The best way to ensure that all four of your churches remain open is to ensure they grow. No bishop is going to close a church which is growing! I’m not going to tell you, from this pulpit, what those growing churches are doing right. This isn’t my parish, so I don’t know what would work well here. There’s a wonderful resource called the Internet which will let you find out about successful Catholic parishes, and use your local knowledge to consider which ideas might fit. But I can tell you that the places where parishes thrive are the places where the parish priest and the people are working together towards a shared vision. Everyone recognises that Moses is the leader, and when he is doing something that works, his support team members step in and hold up his arms for as long as it takes!
You have a Moses leading this community. His name is Canon Barry. The Catholic Church is not a democracy… just as God chose Moses, with all his gifts and all his weaknesses, to lead the Israelites, so Archbishop George has chosen this priest to be your leader. You might not like all the decisions he makes – that’s human nature. The day might come when he, or his successor, has to make unpopular choices about future arrangements. But your success as a parish depends on getting behind your leader, and, like Moses, giving him unwavering support. He is the lead goose on your spiritual migration, and he needs you to honk your encouragement. He needs the vision from the golden eagles among you who have time to survey the landscape and see the possible paths ahead. He needs you to find the geese who will join the flock to make it stronger. And above all, he needs your prayers and your practical support. Those of you who have hosted a member of the Mission Team know that during their stay, the missionary offered to pray with you for God’s blessing on your life. I’ve been staying this week in St Mary’s Priory. I’d like to invite you to join me in praying, now, for God’s blessing and strength for your Moses, your parish priest, Canon Barry English.