Coach Class

Homily for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B, for participants in the Beginning Experience residential weekend at SENT, 10 October 2021.

Emma Raducanu is looking for a new coach.

She’s young. She’s successful! But she’s also vulnerable, and she knows she can’t make it on her own.

At Wimbledon, she beat three world class players and then withdrew due to personal difficulties. At New York, she won the tournament! Then at Indian Wells, she was knocked out in the first round.

Have you ever known you’ve needed to be challenged beyond your comfort zone?

Great athletes know they need coaches. Without a coach to hold them to their disciplines, they might not get up so early or so often to train in the early morning, nor keep going until they’ve exceeded their personal best.

The young man in today’s Gospel knew he needed spiritual coaching. He was already a spiritual athlete, in the premier league of those who kept God’s Law. But he sensed he was called to more. Jesus threw down a challenge, to step out of his comfort zone and place his total trust in God. On this day, he wasn’t ready… and the Bible doesn’t show us what he did later, so we can only imagine whether his was a story of eternal regret or eventual surrender.

Like Emma Raducanu, each one of us faces three possibilities in our life with God. We can withdraw – that is, not take God’s law seriously at all. But in that case, you wouldn’t be here on a weekend like this. So we set out on the journey with Jesus, trying to keep God’s law – sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.

It’s the job of a coach to encourage success – but also to help us move forward after failure.

Sometimes a coach has to help us unlearn bad habits we have picked up along the way.

Sometimes a coach has to help us unlearn even good habits we have picked up along the way, which might have helped us at the time but are now stopping us from moving forwards to where we need to be.

Holiness often requires “letting go”.

Perhaps we’ve been blessed with a long and happy marriage, but the one we love has died. I know a man, a friend of my family, who lost his wife but was so broken he couldn’t let a day go by without visiting her grave. We do well to honour the one who loved us in the past, but God invites us to be free in the present.

Perhaps we’ve suffered the failure of a marriage, and we feel shamed by the demands of the Catholic Church. Well-meaning Catholics sometimes misunderstand what the Church asks, and become bad coaches pushing us in wrong directions. So I want you to hear this from the lips of a priest in the pulpit: There is no shame in walking away from an unsafe relationship where your partner refuses to take your needs seriously. There is no shame in obtaining a legal divorce when you’ve tried your best to make the relationship work and you need to manage the financial reality of being separate. And there is no shame in asking the question, “Was my marriage a binding covenant made by both of us in the way required to create a sacred and lifelong bond?” – which is the question the Catholic Church’s tribunals ask when considering an annulment.

We are all pilgrims on the journey of holiness. Today’s Gospel opens with the words “Jesus was setting out on a journey.” Indeed, the whole of Mark’s Gospel is a journey to Jerusalem, filled with news about the things Jesus did “on the way”. The journey of life includes many beginnings, and today we start anew – if we are willing to start at all. For the young man in today’s Gospel, his possessions were holding him back. Jesus recognised that for others, it might be attachment to land or family relationships. He asks, “Will you let go, and come and follow me?”

How can we let go? Nothing is impossible to God. The Word of God has the power to cut the strongest bonds and enlighten the darkest places.

Forgiveness is a decision. It starts with saying the words “I forgive you.” If you can’t do that on your own, use the mighty power of God. “In Jesus Name, I forgive you.” Note what you are NOT saying. You’re not saying “I excuse you.” You’re not saying “That’s OK.” You are only saying, “I choose not to punish you for the hurt you have done to me.”

Letting go is also a decision. Our parents, our husbands, our wives, our children – each are given to us for a season, but ultimately they belong to God. If we are acutely aware of the absence of a loved one, we might try this prayer, which comes from St Ignatius, founder of the Jesuit Order:

Take Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. Thou hast given all to me. To Thee, O lord, I return it. All is Thine, dispose of it wholly according to Thy will. Give me Thy love and thy grace, for this is sufficient for me.

St Ignatius of Loyola

No-one looks for a coach who will give them an easy ride; a coach who doesn’t push you will never make you a winner. Emma Raducanu is still looking for a new coach. The rich young man found Jesus, but wasn’t ready to accept the challenge. There is no hiding place in Jesus for he is the Word of God who uncovers secret thoughts, and knows our innermost guilt and shame. He is the Wisdom of God, whom you are seeking. Taking Jesus as your coach will be painful, but rewarding. You will experience tough challenges and extraordinary blessings. You will discover new relationships, with God and with other members of the Church as your family. If you are willing to begin again, say yes to Jesus, whatever challenges you fear he will place before you. He is the one you are looking for, and he is Good, for he is God-with-us. Jesus, I trust in you.

Not Dead To Me

Reflection to participants in the Beginning Experience residential weekend at SENT, 9 October 2021, following the reading of the Prodigal Son.

You’re dead to me!

There’s a young man who wishes things could be different. He’s not at home in his Fathers house; he wants his inheritance now. In effect, he tells his Father “You’re dead to me!” And leaves his Father’s house to make his own way in the world.

Well, be careful what you wish for! He experiences a few of the pleasures which the world has to offer, but soon finds himself on Skid Row.

He recognises that his Father’s house is a place of provision, a place of plenty, and a place of protection. But it is a place for him? How will he be received in a few days if he shows his face once again at the door? He believes he has already forfeited the right to be there. Maybe if he grovels, he can at least be welcomed as a lowly servant?

What is in that young man’s mind as he ponders the path home to the Father’s house? What guilt is he feeling about the choice he made, the terrible choice to wish his Father dead? But more than – what shame he is sensing about who he is as a person, that he could even think of doing that in the first place?

Each of us battles with two great foes, called guilt and shame. Guilt is the knowledge that we have taken a wrong turn, knowing it was a bad way to go. The antidote to guilt is recognising what we’ve done, turning back, and saying sorry. But often we think we’re feeling guilt when our true enemy is shame. Deep down, doesn’t each and every one of us wish that what we are better than we truly are? But I’m not. I’m just me, with all my faults and flaws and weaknesses and embarrassments.

God our Father knows this. Jesus knows this. And they still love us – because their love for us does not depend on our perfection, but on their Goodness.

This can be hard for us to trust.

In science, if someone claims they found a way of generating energy which is too cheap to meter and causes no pollution, you would be right to be sceptical. In economics, if someone offers you a deal that sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And yet in our Christian faith we tell the story of a Father who loves and forgives and asks no questions other than, “Will you trust me?” and a Son who says: “Change your life, come to me, and all your sins can be forgiven.”

This is the greatness of the Father’s heart. Tonight the Father declares: “Let me put a ring on your finger, and sandals on your feet! Let’s have a feast! It’s party time, because the child I love has come home.”

Now I know what you’re thinking. “God loves me? Really me? That person?”

Yes.

This is why Jesus told the story of the straying son and his forgiving Father.

Your sins can be forgiven. For the guilt of your actions, all you have to do is say sorry, and do your very best to take a different and better path next time you’re faced with a similar decision. As for the shame of who you are, maybe there are things you don’t like about yourself but the Father loves you. Maybe you have weaknesses that trip you up time and time again, and the Father still says:

I love you. You exist because I created you out of love. You may wish to live in a world free of pain, free of conflict, free of trouble, but the only world I have to offer you is the one in which you live, the world in which you bind up one another’s wounds and bear each other’s burdens. I sent my own Son as a man among  you, and he was not exempt from the daily burden of human work. When the time was right, he opened his arms wide on the cross as a sign of his love, and mine, for each and every one of you. It may be hard to grasp how it works, but those open arms on the cross opened up the gates of heaven. Now you may enter in and all the blessings of heaven flow out through him. But no one is going to force you to enter. It is up to you to choose to take the road to the Father’s house. If you come to me I will run to meet you, I will put a ring on your finger, and wrap my cloak around you. All guilt can be forgiven, as long as you sincerely choose to seek another path. As for your shame, I cannot change your feelings overnight, but know that I know your heart better than you do yourself, and I love you and I want you to dwell in my house forever. Because I love you, I have placed the power of my Son into all of my priests, so that they can look into your eyes and declare, “Your sins are forgiven, and you are loved by your Father.”

However you feel, whatever you’ve done, “Today you are alive to me,” says the Father. Choose life, and you shall live!

Rebuilding Sion

Homily to members of Sion Community at the first Community Regional Day in the SENT Chapel, 25 September 2021.

Walk about Zion, go around it, count its towers, consider well its ramparts, … that you may tell the next generation that this is God, our God forever and ever! (Psalm 48:12-14)

Brothers and sisters, it is good to be in this place, this familiar place, this homely place. Some of us haven’t been here for a while. In our minds we are thinking, “Yes, we know what Sion is like.”

Let us recognise here a strong temptation to do exactly what we have done before, to rebuild the old. This might well be what the man with the measuring line was sent to do. If you’ve been following the Mass readings in the last two days, you’ll know we’ve been in the time of rebuilding the Jewish Temple. Perhaps the measuring man needed to know the size of the old walls to rebuild them exactly where they were. 

And God says NO.

Be open! Be vulnerable to new people and new ways of doing things! I will be your protection!

Scary! And thrilling!

My brothers and sisters, do not be surprised at this message, for it is one the Lord has been preparing us for over recent years.

In this chapel, you see the beautiful image of the praising girl above our musicians, reflecting our prophetic word that we have been given a voice – both to preach the Gospel and to praise God – and so we must use it.

On the other side, there is our tent-peg image. Make wider your tent, that nations may stream in from left and from right! And next to the tent peg is a screen. There used to be a projector screen there; now there is a TV. We might look at the screen and think, “Oh, that’s for the words so we can praise God with one voice.” That’s partly true. But the screen can do more than this. The screen can also connect us to people beyond the walls of this building. In a prophetic way, the tent-peg now sits next to our window on the wider world!

I think we may also see a prophetic sign in what is happening with our Covenant Steering Group. It started with three core members on it. One, Peter, is here at SENT. Another, Alice, will speak to us from the Ark. The third, Karen, will catch up from home as she recovers from surgery. Likewise there are three Associate Members. Clare Spiller is here with us. Fran Baines will speak from the Ark. John Martin will also speak to us remotely, either from the Ark or from home – we’ll find out this afternoon. The future has arrived. We are bigger than this beloved building!

Another prophetic word, perhaps more familiar to the Core Members, was given at a December retreat a few years ago, about a painful time of being watered and re-centred as a potter works a pot. This afternoon, we will reflect in more detail on the new shape of the precious vessel which is Sion Community. This requires courage, that we may let go of the old beauty, and embrace the new. But this is always what the followers of Jesus are called to do.

Cardinal Newman reminded us that to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.

Some nameless wag has noted us that change is inevitable, except from a machine machine.

Jesus proclaimed: Change! God’s Kingdom is close to you! Rejoice, in this good news!

Jesus called for METANOIA. Yes, that word includes repentance from those sins which are always sins. But it also includes the call to turn from God’s will for the previous stage of our journey to embrace God’s will for the next. Even the 12 apostles were reluctant to embrace change. Jesus prophecied his death and resurrection. They didn’t want to hear it! But that was the only way God’s purpose could be fulfilled, and in the fullness of time they came to understand.

Change may be exciting. Change may be scary. But change is always God’s way, that we may journey with him from glory to glory. Only through change can His power working in us do more than we can ever expect and imagine. As Marianna said in her prophecy about the pot, the change would be painful, but make us something quite beautiful, if we embrace it.

I do not believe it is a coincidence that the liturgy gives us this reading on the first day we can gather in this way. In this reading, our beloved Lord promises to dwell in the heart of Sion, and we are called to rejoice. Let us trust in the wall of fire, which is the Power of the Holy Spirit, and pray for the great numbers who will join us in times to come! So glory be to Him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever. Amen! (Eph 3:20-21)

Missionaries of our Common Home

Homily at the Catholic Parishes of Maesteg and Aberkenfig for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

Can you see the problem? Can you hear what’s wrong? Who are you going to tell about it?

There are lots of problems in today’s world, but the one we should think about today is the global environment. This time of year, from the start of September until St Francis’ day in October, is a time when churches particularly look at our duty to care for our common home, which is planet Earth.

When David Attenborough produced a documentary a few years ago showing the world’s oceans swimming with plastic, people were horrified! The cry went up, “We must do something about this!” 

“Doing something” looked like reducing the quantity of plastic bags given out by supermarkets, and increasing reusable bottles in place of disposable plastic ones. So far so good, but sometimes the problems we can see are not as significant as the ones that we can’t.

When I studied physics at university, one of the topics was predicting how fluids move. Both the water in the ocean and the air in the atmosphere are fluids, and our climate depends on how they move around the planet. I know from experience that solving those mathematical problems is one of the most difficult things we had to tackle, and so our understanding of the world’s ecosystem is always going to be partial and provisional. We’ll probably never have a perfect understanding of how our planet works and everything that could happen. But the climate scientists working today have make their best estimates – and all that science can ever do is provide the best estimate based on what we currently know.

What the climate scientists say might not be quite right, but is much more likely to be nearly right than all wrong. And here’s the kicker: if they are right we have to act now to stop the planet going into runaway warming. We don’t have the luxury of waiting for another 50 years to see if the predictions check out – unless we want to live with floods and storms in a way we haven’t experienced in living memory.

Notice what Jesus did with the deaf man in today’s gospel. He took him aside privately to minister to him. We all start out deaf to the needs of our planet. But we aren’t always keen to hear. Perhaps we don’t trust the scientists. Perhaps we don’t want to have to change our lifestyle. Perhaps we just don’t like other people telling us what to do. I can’t take each one of you aside privately for a conversation, but if I could, I’d start by asking you which of the scientists’ concerns you think are credible. Maybe the problems aren’t as big as the doom-mongers make out, but can we agree that the planet has a problem?

If we’ve heard the message that the planet is warming up too quickly, what can we do about it? It’s the small changes we can all make which add up to a big change for the planet. Any positive change is better than no change. Perhaps we don’t feel ready to cut down the amount of meat we eat, but we are willing to turn the thermostat down a few degrees and wear an extra layer at this time of year. Perhaps we’re not willing to install solar panels at home, but we are willing to switch our energy bills to a green provider. Perhaps we’re not able to cut the amount of flying or driving in our lives, but we can pay into a tree-planting scheme which offsets some of our carbon emissions.

St James warns us not to treat rich guests better than poor visitors. Here in the UK we enjoy extraordinary privileges which half the world’s population can only dream of. When we tolerate each other’s high consumption lifestyles and shrug our shoulders at the thought that other countries can’t aspire to that, are we doing anything different from the corrupt judges in today’s second reading?

Friends, we are God’s messengers to Maesteg, his ambassadors to Aberkenfig. To be credible witnesses today we not only need to be people who care for individuals – we need to be seen to be people who care about planet Earth. Pope Francis has spoken seriously about counting failure to care for our planet as the Eighth Deadly Sin, though he hasn’t yet officially updated the Catechism to say so.

If you don’t agree with Pope Francis, and the scientists, and myself, in believing that the planet has a problem, I respect your point of view, but I do ask you to look honestly at evidence which might lead you to change your mind. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel: be opened!

If you do agree that there’s a problem, I’m not going to tell you what to do about it – because I know many of us react badly to being told what to do, especially when we’ve had to live with so many covid restrictions. So instead, I’m going to ask you to choose to start doing one thing this month which you aren’t already doing, and make it part of your lifestyle. You can easily search online for “How can I cut my carbon emissions?” (Possible answers from a University, the BBC and Friends of the Earth).  Carbon emission isn’t our only problem, but it’s the most serious challenge we face and it’s the reason that world leaders, including Pope Francis, will meet in Glasgow in November.

On most Sundays of the year, the priest wears green vestments. These next four weeks might have a special focus on the environment, but positive change requires us to stay faithful to good green habits year after year. So when you come to Mass and you see a priest wearing green asking you to call to mind your sins, don’t forget to ask yourself, “How have I cared for the planet this week?” And we confess our sins not only so that Jesus can forgive us, but so we can remind ourselves to do the right thing next time. My time in this parish, and in this sermon is running out. Planet Earth hasn’t got much time left either, so do the right thing this time to make sure that you, the parish, and the planet have a next time! Over and out.


Message at the end of Mass:

Friends, I just want to say a few words because this is my last Sunday with you. Because of social distancing, I haven’t been able to get to know you as well as I would have hoped over these last few weeks, but despite that, you have done a fantastic job of making me welcome and very much at home among you. I’ve enjoyed being here very much, and thank you for your support.

During these weeks, I’ve revisited some of the basics of our Christian life. Each one of you is an ambassador to Aberkenfig, a missionary to Maesteg. To be credible messengers, you must be seen to be people who love your neighbours and care for Planet Earth. As credible witnesses, you can speak to others who trust you about Our Lord, Jesus, who died so we could enter heaven, who feeds us on earth with the Blessed Sacrament, and who has given Mary as a mother to care for us all. Above all, I’d like to leave you with the belief that if you are faithful messengers, this parish can grow.

I’m sure when you look around and see how many people are missing, and the work which needs to be done on the building, you worry about the future. But I have good news. There are Catholic parishes which, despite the circumstances of today’s world are growing and flourishing. The secret is simple – we do what Our Lord asked us to do, we go and make disciples. We invite people who have never been Catholics to come and join us; we help lost sheep find their way back to the fold; and we help those who come to Sunday Mass go deeper in their knowledge of Christ Our Saviour.

How can we do this? I’m glad you asked! In this week’s newsletter there are two fantastic opportunities to support you – the Spreading the Gospel course and its follow-up, the Genesis Mission. If you’re not sure how to offer an invitation to someone who’s never been Catholic, or who has fallen away from Church, these are the places to find out!

Today, I’ve asked you to choose to do something for the good of Planet Earth. This month, I’ve also asked you to make Jesus known among your friends and family. It’s time for me to leave you now, as your parish priest returns – and as you work with him to spread the Gospel here, this parish will go from strength to strength. None of this will happen without prayer, so please pray for me, as I will pray for you, until we meet merrily in heaven.

Missionaries of the Right Religion

Homily at the Catholic Parishes of Maesteg and Aberkenfig for the 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

A transatlantic airliner lost power in both its engines. The terrified stewardess saw a priest wearing his collar in the front seat and cried out: “Help! Do something religious!” Eventually the engines restarted, but not before the priest had taken a collection and raised £99!

These days, being “religious” has a bad name. One in five British people might call themselves “spiritual but not religious”, believing that it’s good to connect with God, but not necessary to follow any rules about it. In Afghanistan we see the threat of the Taliban, who have extreme religious values they want to impose on wider society. In today’s Gospel, Jesus challenged the ritual washing taught by certain Pharisees, saying their religious customs were not needed.

Now please don’t stop keeping good hygiene! In the 18 months since our Prime Minister went on television to show us how to wash our hands properly, we’ve all become acutely aware of sanitising both our hands and the things we touch. What Jesus was criticising wasn’t basic hand hygiene, but much more elaborate rituals of washing hands up to the elbow, and perhaps even after each course of a meal! Perhaps these customs were based in fear about our values becoming corrupted by the world around us… so Jesus points out that the values which are already in our hearts reveal what kind of person we are. What is clear is that Jesus said those washing customs were made up by human beings, and were not part of a commandment given by God.

So what commandments ARE given to us by God? It’s a very great responsibility to claim that the Maker and ultimate Judge of the Universe has given us instructions that we are expected to follow. If we put false instructions in the Lord’s mouth we’ll be guilty both of manipulating vulnerable human beings and of insulting the Most High God! This is why Moses – who had a very good claim to know exactly what God wanted – solemnly warned the Jewish people about altering the laws he was passing down. And yet many of those Jewish laws no longer apply to us as followers of Jesus – or some scholars would say that Jesus keeps them on our behalf.

What laws do apply to us? Jesus was asked what the “greatest commandment” was, and found it neccessary to give us two. Love God, and love our neighbour. Later he celebrated the Last Supper, and showed us how the best way to love God was to “do this in memory of me”. The whole life of Jesus is a study of what it means to love our neighbour – and in particular, to forgive even people who don’t deserve our forgiveness.

Religion is not a bad thing. We’re doing something religious right now – we’re part of a celebration of Mass. We are obediently doing what Our Lord asked us to do, and we’re using set forms of words given to us by the leaders of our Church. That’s part of our religion, too – we have priests, and bishops who have inherited the authority of St Peter. Our bishops have not added many “religious” rules that we have to follow as Catholics. We are asked to fast for an hour before communion, to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, to abstain from meat on every Friday, to attend Mass on Sundays and on six extra Holy Days each year when it’s safe to do so, to go to confession and receive communion at least once a year, and to receive the Church’s blessing when we get married.

But rules and rituals can give us a false sense of security. Just going to Mass or following all these religious rules won’t get us all the way to heaven. We must also check the values in our hearts. That’s why St James wrote that “Pure, unspoilt religion, in the eyes of God our Father is this: coming to the help of orphans and widows when they need it, and keeping oneself uncontaminated by the world.”

Friends, we are God’s ambassadors to Aberkenfig, his messengers to Maesteg. But to be credible witnesses we must “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk”. Who are the “orphans and widows” in our families and in this local community? Are we seen to be people who help others who are in need? And what are the worldly contaminants which are in danger of corrupting us?

A few verses earlier, St James wrote “Do what God’s Word tells you, don’t just listen to it.” God has given us a great gift, the freedom to choose to do the right thing even though our darker feelings might be trying to lead us astray. Many of the unclean things Jesus warned us about are temptations to harm other people with our words, attitudes or actions. Others are the temptations to satisfy ourselves with material things or sexual pleasure. When we become aware of these dark forces within ourselves, we can do two thngs. One is to come to a priest in confession. The other is to make a prayer to God, declaring that we renounce these sinful attitudes and we ask Jesus for freedom from future temptation. and deliverance.

So as we move into September and begin a new cycle of activities, here are some questions to ponder

  • How are you doing at loving your enemies?
  • How are you doing at forgiving the person who offends you most?
  • How are you doing at praying to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit every day?
  • How are you doing at keeping the fasts and feasts of the church?

Our religion is about two things: loving God and loving our neighbour. Either on its own is not enough. But do something religious – worship at Church and help someone in need – even if you have to take a collection!

Missionaries of the Master

Homily at the Catholic Parishes of Maesteg and Aberkenfig for the 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

Friends, what are you doing here today?

Don’t get me wrong.

I’m very glad you ARE here today, especially in this difficult season. But I wonder, if we stop ourselves to ask why we came today – what would be motivating us?

I’m guessing that some of us are here because we’re afraid that God will be angry if we don’t turn up. I know from my experience as a priest that it’s very easy for Catholics to feel guilty about missing Mass, even if the reason is that there’s six feet of snow on the ground or you’re lying in bed with flu. It seems, at least for those of us who are older, that it was beaten into us – I hope not literally – that we must be at Mass on Sundays if we don’t want to go to Hell.

That is so nearly right, and at the same time so terribly wrong. What you should have been taught contains one word which is very easy to miss. It is CHOOSING not to go to Mass that sends you to Hell. That may sound dramatic, but look at it like this: Heaven is living in God’s house. Hell is living outside God’s house; and we get a choice where we are going to live. There are times in our lives when we don’t have a choice and that’s when it’s bad weather or illness or a government lockdown that stops us from coming to Sunday mass. We have no choice at all; and where there is no choice there can be no sin. There can, however, be lots of regret. If you ever find yourself on a Sunday wishing you were at Mass and regretting the circumstances which are stopping you from being there, take time to pray, offer the Lord your regret, and that will be a very worthy sacrifice of praise for the Lord’s Day.

Being scared of God is a terrible motivation. Can you imagine sharing this message? “Hey, why not join the Catholic Church! We can teach you to feel afraid of God, and then you can spend every Sunday in fear and trembling worrying that you have to get to Mass or else be damned to hell.” I don’t know about you but that doesn’t seem to me to be a very attractive way to present the Good News of Jesus.

Some of us will be here today because of a sense of belonging; this church community is like family, and we gather to be with the people that we love. That’s a good reason to be here! But it doesn’t always motivate us to open the doors of the house and invite all our friends. Family can be a safe place, the house we run to behind closed doors. But this is the Father’s house, and his doors are open wide to all. So let’s be careful, in case our sense of belonging becomes selfish and stops us from inviting other people to join our family.

I’m not going to take a show of hands, but I wonder, if I did, how many of you would say “Yes the reason I’m here today is to serve the Lord – I’m a follower of Jesus Christ and I’ve come to worship him?” That is the best reason to be at Mass. And if we know why we’ve chosen to be followers of Jesus, we can share that story with other people. How does knowing Jesus change my life for the better? How has following him helped me find spiritual safety? How have I experienced Him feeding me through the Word proclaimed at Mass and the Bread of Life?

Joshua reminded the people what God had done for them, rescuing them from slavery in Egypt. Today, take a moment to remember who God is and who you are. God is a loving Father, who sent his Son, Jesus, as a teacher and sacrifice. Because Jesus died on the Cross, anyone who follows him can go to heaven despite their sins. Don’t ask me how it works! I’m not God! All I know is this was so important that Jesus came to say “follow me, and you will find safety in heaven”. You are a sinner, plagued by guilt and regret. When you have made truly wrong choices, you can run to Jesus and say “I’m sorry!” and he will always forgive you! When you regret things in your life which were beyond your control, you can run to Jesus and tell him “This hurts!” And he will reply: “I love you.”

Now, my friends, see what these words are saying to your hearts. Is Jesus the Holy One of God? Is following him the path to eternal life? We do make a bold claim. Not all religions are equal. Following Buddha or Krishna or the Qu’ran will teach you something about living a good life, but will not take you all the way to heaven. Jesus is the only one who can take away our sins. This is why the Church offers baptism, confession, Anointing of the Sick and holy communion.

Friends, you are God’s messengers to Maesteg, his ambassadors to Aberkenfig. The most important message you will ever carry is the invitation to follow Jesus. And the best way to carry the message is by telling the story of how Jesus forgave your sins and changed your life for the better. So ask yourselves today: Am I here to please an angry father? Am I here to be with my friends? Or am I here to follow Jesus on the road to eternal life?

Perhaps you’ve never looked at things this way before. Perhaps you need a moment of prayer in your heart. Jesus, help me see that God is not angry, but doesn’t want me left outside his house! Jesus, help me see that the Father’s house is not only for me but for all the people in this town. Jesus, help me make a decision today that I will serve you out of love, not fear, and invite others to do the same. 

As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

Missionaries of the Blessed Mother

Homily at the Catholic Parishes of Maesteg and Aberkenfig for the Solemnity of the Assumption, 2021.

“Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord?”

These were the words of St Elizabeth when the newly-pregnant Virgin Mary arrived to meet with her. But they could also be the words of anyone who receives the Mother of Jesus into their daily life.

Today we rejoice that the Virgin Mary entered into heaven, body and soul. This means that she is in a perfect position to be God’s messenger to earth.

During the last 200 years, many people – believers, and some unbelievers – have claimed to have been visited by the holy Mother of God. The Church authorities are always careful to investigate, because there will be false claims as well as true ones. But in the claims which pass the test of truth, Our Lady usually comes to ask us to pray, and often to pray the rosary.

To St Catherine Labouré in 1830, she simply asked us to invoke her prayers for ourselves: “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to you.” Her promise was that if we entrust ourselves to her, we will receive the help we need from heaven to live lives pleasing to God.

Ten years later, at the same convent in Paris, Our Lady asked us to pray for those who had fallen away from the Catholic faith, or have not yet embraced it. She gaves us these words: “Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.”

The heart of Mary is burning with love for all of us – those who follow Jesus faithfully, those who struggle to do so, those who have turned away and those who have not yet heard of him. Her heart is open especially to those who suffer – for she herself knew great suffering. When she said YES to God’s plan, she was saying yes to the stigma of being an unmarried mother, the years of exile as a refugee in Egypt, and the heartbreak of seeing her only son crucified before her eyes. But she was also saying yes to the glory and reward offered to all who are faithful to God.

When she appeared to St Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, she said, “I do not promise to make you happy in this world, but in the next.” Indeed, the young visionary entered a convent but died of tuberculosis at the age of 35.

In 1917, she appeared to three shepherd children in Fatima. They passed on to the world her invitation to pray the rosary every day, for peace in the world. They also passed on a new prayer from heaven to be said at the end of each decade: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Your Mercy.” Two of those children died soon afterwards in the influeznza pandemic which swept across Europe; one, Lúcia, was left to live into her 90s as a witness to the world.

During the last hundred years, there have been many more claims that Mary has appeared with messages (here’s one in India). The Church has authenticated some and reserved judgment on others. But it is safe to say that the Mother of God continues to visit us to invite us to pray for sinners, to ask for her heavely asisstance for ourselves, and to lead us gently to follow her beloved son, Jesus Christ.

What happens when we are honoured with a visit from the mother of our Lord? All too often we rush to the holy place and start telling our Blessed Mother what WE want. “I need a job! I need healing for a broken relationship! My best friend has cancer – please do something!” Now it is never wrong to ask Our Lady and the saints to pray for our human needs – but it is rude to speak and not listen to what they want from us. Our Blessed Mother is asking us to pray the rosary for peace in the world. She is asking us to pray for the conversion of sinners. She is asking us to turn to her with open hands, seeking the graces we need to live better Christian lives.

I know it’s not easy to make time for prayer… you might have children or grandchildren at home who aren’t interested. Maybe your spouse isn’t catholic. But try. If you can’t pray a whole rosary, pray a decade. I know one family with a disabled child who make it a priority to pray the rosary at about 6 o’clock each evening. When the children are in a difficult mood they might have to settle for each child leading a single Hail Mary – but they don’t make excuses. Any prayer is infinitely better than no prayer!

So, brothers and sisters in Christ, what are you going to do about this?

You are heaven’s ambassadors to Aberkenfig, heaven’s messengers to Maesteg. When did you last pray a rosary for peace in the world? When did you last invite a member of your family or circle of friends to pray a rosary with you? I know that in this parish, the rosary is said on Monday evenings. Thank you to those who pray the rosary faithfully. If you haven’t been recently, what is stopping you from joining? If the place and time don’t work for you, do you choose to pray at another time?

Of course, no Catholic is required to pray the rosary. It’s not a sin if you don’t. But Our Blessed Mother is inviting us to do this. She is already in heaven – and one day, when you go to heaven, you will meet her. What will you have in your hands when you do?

Prepare a place for the Virgin Mary in your life. Ask for her help. Entrust to her the people you know who have fallen away from our faith, or not yet embraced it. And above all, call your mother – she’s waiting to hear from you!

Missionaries of the Eucharist

Homily at the Catholic Parishes of Maesteg and Aberkenfig for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

Friends, you are Our Lord’s messengers to Maesteg, his ambassadors to Aberkenfig.

You are the people he trusts to make his church grow here.

Priests come and go. You might have a priest from Ghana for a few years, or a priest from Llanelli for a few weeks – but you are heaven’s permanent representatives in this place. What, then, is the message which heaven wants to send through you at this time?

In our Sunday gospel two weeks ago, Jesus showed his divine power by feeding 5,000 people with a few loaves and fishes. Last week we heard him preach to the same congregation and declare, “I am the bread of life!” Now if that was the only thing Our Lord said about bread, we could shrug it off as a metaphor – “Hey! I’m the person who’s going to sustain you!” But in what we heard today, Jesus begins to show his listeners that this message is much more literal:

I am the living bread which has come down from heaven.
Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever;
and the bread that I shall give is my flesh,
for the life of the world.

If you read even further on in St John’s Gospel, you’ll hear Our Lord use even stronger language! A literal translation would say that “You must chew on my flesh and quaff my blood in order to have eternal life within you!”

At this point, the Bible tells us that many of his listeners began to scoff. If you’ll pardon my language, they started asking, “What the heck is he talking about?” – and they probably used stronger words that that, which I’d better not use from this pulpit. Even though they had seen a miracle, many decided to stop following him.

Even the 12 Apostles were scratching their heads.

Remember, the Last Supper hasn’t happened yet, so they couldn’t make any sense of how they were meant to eat the flesh and drink the blood of this man standing in front of them, their beloved teacher, Jesus. But of course once the Last Supper had taken place, and Jesus had risen from the dead, all the pieces fell into place for them. Now they could obey his command to take bread and wine and bless it in his memory, so that all his followers could receive his own body and blood as holy communion.

Jesus came to us as a messenger from heaven, to tell us it was important to take Holy Communion, in order to enter eternal life. We are called to pass on that message.

Jesus is not promising that you or I will feel anything special when we receive communion; He simply promises that if we eat the bread of life we will inherit eternal life. And that’s what’s kept me a faithful Catholic since I was received into the Church 31 years ago. I’ve attended many conferences and church services with other Christians, and sometimes they are really good at doing things that we’re not so good at in the Catholic Church. I’ve seen amazing worship bands, and teams of young people bending over backwards to provide hospitality and make new members of the congregation welcome. But I would never transfer my membership to any of those Christian communities, because there’s only one place where I can receive the bread of life, and that’s at the hands of an ordained priest.

I’ve only once has a deep spiritual experience connected to the Blessed Sacrament – three years after I became a Catholic, praying in front of a tabernacle, I sensed Our Lord speaking to my heart, saying that my prayer that day had been accepted. One thing I do know from my own experience is that once I started becoming a daily Massgoer, God began to change something in my heart which helped me move from being a very academic person who didn’t particularly care about other people, to being someone who cared enough that I could eventually enter seminary and embrace the calling of a Catholic priest.

Maybe you’ve had a personal experience of being nourished by the Eucharist. Can you put your hand on your heart and say from your own experience that the blessed sacrament is your bread of life? Some of us can – but others walk by faith alone. It doesn’t matter; both faith and spiritual experiences are God’s gifts to us.

Now, as Our Lord’s messengers to Maesteg, his ambassadors to Aberkenfig, you have a task entrusted to you. It is to remind the friends of Jesus that they must receive the Blessed Sacrament in order to fully enter eternal life.

You will know some Catholics who have stayed away from Mass because of the risk of covid-19. That is quite understandable. There are some who for health reasons still need to shield. But the Bread of Life can be received at home. Do you know anyone who is too embarrassed to ask for communion at home? Please encourage them to ask. Yes, our priests are busy, but there are three requests a priest never wants to ignore. “Please hear my confession. Please anoint a sick person. Please send Holy Communion to someone who cannot come to Mass.”

You’ll know other Catholics who don’t need to shield. Why not have a quiet word, and ask them when they will receive the Bread of Life again? You may also know Catholics who, long before the pandemic, found a place to worship in a different Christian community. Perhaps you could gently ask them, as followers of Jesus, how they obey his command to eat his flesh and drink his blood in the place they worship? You may even know friends who were never Catholic but are asking questions about Jesus. They too are invited to the Lord’s table.

Jesus only preached about the need to eat his body and blood to a crowd who were ready to listen to him. Holy Communion isn’t a great starting point with people who don’t know God at all. In a couple of weeks, I will preach about how we introduce Our Lord to people who don’t yet know him. But the invitation to feast on the Bread of Life is for those who are already friends of Jesus Christ.

Two final thoughts. One is a word to anyone who comes faithfully to Mass even though you can’t receive Holy Communion – either because you are not yet Catholic or because you are living in a relationship the Church has not blessed. To you, I say thank you for your faithfulness and for persevering in living close to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. The other is to those of you who will receive Holy Communion at the end of today’s service. We usually speak of us ‘receiving Jesus in Holy Communion’. But have you ever looked at it the other way round – that Jesus wants to receive you in Holy Communion? As you receive His Body, so he receives your body to be physically united with his Sacramental Presence. Our Lord is longing for closeness and communion with you. He’s glad that you are here today – glad that you came to say “I love you”. It may feel strange to receive Holy Communion as you exit the church instead of the usual time, but know that you, Our Lord’s chosen messengers to Maesteg, his ambassadors to Aberkenfig, going out to invite others to the heavenly banquet, will be sent on your way with a kiss from God.

The Priesthood of Young Believers

Homily to theASCENT participants at Worth Abbey for the Saturday of the 16th Week of Ordinary Time, Year 1.

Before there were many Catholic priests throughout the world, there were the Twelve Apostles.

Before Jesus called Apostles to himself, there were Levitical priests offering sacrifice in the Jewish Temple.

Before there was a Temple, Moses anointed Aaron and his sons to be the high priestly family of all Israel.

But before Aaron was chosen, it was the young people of Israel who were chosen for the priestly duty of making sacrifice to God.

Now, I’ve been a Catholic priest for 14 years. I’m very happy with what I do – each day I stand at the altar and open a time portal, connecting our lives here and now with what Jesus did once and for all on the Hill of Calvary. He was the Lamb of God, the only sacrifice powerful enough to forgive our sins and open the gates of heaven. Last night, Fin preached about the importance of obedience to God – and in the last two thousand years, hundreds of millions of times, Catholic priests have obeyed Jesus’ command to “do this in memory of me”. The Mass is a sacrifice, but not a new sacrifice – it is the one and eternal sacrifice. At least, it’s not a new or repeated sacrifice for God.

But it is for me!

I once saw a friend wearing a wonderful T-shirt: “The problem with living sacrifices is that they try to crawl off the altar.”

We are each called to be a living sacrifice, making a daily decision to place God at the centre of our lives. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we fail. In fact, each one of us is a field where wheat and weeds grow together. Some of our bad habits are so entwined with our personalities that we can’t see how to stop the bad patterns in our lives without harming something good about who we are. God doesn’t seem to be a in hurry – he has given each one of us a lifetime to try to deal with the problem of sin in our lives. But each day we have to make a fresh decision not only to walk away from temptations to do things which are selfish – we also have to make a daily decision to place Jesus at the centre. Do you call him Lord? A Lord is not a special advisor. If you want to take some of his advice and reject the rest, by all means sing songs in honour of Jesus Christ your Counsellor, but don’t go further than that! Like an Army Commander, a Lord gets the last word, or you’re out of the ranks!

Now, what about these young Israelites who were called to offer sacrifice? They had to do three things. First, they received the live animals which the people of Israel brought. Then they slaughtered the creatures as sacrifices. Third, they brought the blood to Moses so he could sprinkle it on the people!

Remember that in those days, the people of Israel were nomads. They travelled from place to place in a barren desert. You can’t grow crops when you don’t stay in one place all year round. They took sheep and goats and cattle to graze on the plants which grew wild – the animals were their security. To give away an animal was to give away true wealth – no more milk, no more lambs or calves, no meat from that creature. For an Israelite to entrust you with one of their precious livestock must have been a truly humbling moment!

Now don’t worry – no living creatures were or will be harmed in the making of this sermon! We are not in the business of sacrificing animals; we don’t need to, because now we know God was pointing forward to the only Lamb that ever needed to be sacrificed, Jesus Christ Himself. We might, indeed, be asked to make the sacrifice of eating less meat in our lives, for the sake of our planet. But as young people called to God’s Royal Priesthood, which comes as part of our baptism, when do other people bring us things to sacrifice?

Sometimes, others bring us their bad behaviour. We will feel tempted to react emotionally and give as good as we get. But as mediators of peace, we can ask for God’s help to suck it up, turn the other cheek, and channel into prayer our frustrations about what we can’t change in other people. Jesus instructed us to love, bless and pray for our enemies – and that goes for the friends who annoy us, too!

Sometimes, others bring us their burdens. We need to listen to a friend in distress. We might feel humbled by their trust, and powerless in the face of their problems. But we are mediators between our friend and the greatest Power in the universe! It’s hardly ever inappropriate to tell your friend that you’re going to pray for them. And take a risk – usually it’s OK to offer to pray WITH them. Just say you believe in a God who can help and you’re wondering if it’s OK to say a prayer with them right now. When they say YES, wait to see what God does in their lives!

The young people of Israel RECEIVED the sacrifices. You will receive the bad behaviour and the burdens which others bring you.

The young people of Israel OFFERED the sacrifices. You are invited to make a daily decision to be a living sacrifice, to help your friends bear their burdens, to turn the other cheek to your enemies. Stay on the altar – don’t crawl away.

The young people of Israel BROUGHT the blood to Moses. You are not on your own – as God’s priestly people, you are called to pray for your enemies and your friends. You are mediators between them and Jesus Christ. A hundred years ago, God spoke to the world twice to remind us of this. At Fatima, an angel taught the visionary children to offer to the Holy Trinity, “the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world”. In Poland, St Faustina Kowalska was by Jesus Himself taught to pray the Chaplet of Mercy for those in need – “For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” As an ordained priest, I get to stand at an altar and make present the Sacrifice of Jesus in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. As baptised priests, you get to stand in the world and invoke the power of the blood of Jesus on your friends and upon your enemies.

Before there were Catholic priests, there were the Twelve Apostles.

Before the High Priestly line of Aaron, there were the young people of Israel.

You are God’s first choice to offer sacrifice, to be priests for the people in your lives, people who don’t even know they need someone to plead for them before the throne of God.

Don’t worry about the weeds in your lives. God will deal with those in good time. Look after the wheat. Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. Lift up your friends before God and pour out upon them the power of the Blood of Jesus. God has chosen you to do this – all you have to do is stay at the altar!

Keep On Running

Homily at the Sion Community D Weekend “Keep On Running” for the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

I don’t watch athletics much, just when the Olympics are on – and the moments I remember are not the world-beating performances but the heart-warming actions.

We’ve just seen the moment when Jonny Brownlee got into trouble near the end of the 2016 World Triathlon race; his brother Alistair not only helped Jonny to the finish line but made sure Jonny crossed it before he did! The following year Ariana Luterman did something similar at the Dallas Marathon, to help race leader Chandler Self. (watch)

St Paul often used images from sport. When he wrote to Christians in Philippi, Galatia and Corinth, he spoke about running well, not running in vain, and that only one athlete can claim the prize! He also spoke about training like a boxer! In the second letter to Timothy, written years later, we find the declaration “I have finished the race!” Well, I hope making it into heaven isn’t quite like first prize in a race – otherwise, if St Paul won the prize then I’m out of the running! But don’t worry, Paul himself says the prize is not only for himself but for all who long for Jesus to return.

What happens when an athlete is helped across the line? Should their time be recorded, or the competitor disqualified? Neither Self nor Brownlee were disqualified – because the help came from another runner, and they weren’t racing for prize money.

In fact, we’re all like Jonny Brownlee and Chandler Self on a bad day… we don’t have the power within us to make it all the way on our own. None of us can win the prize of heaven by our own efforts, even if most of the time we behave really well! We need Jesus to help us across the line. Indeed, that’s why Jesus came from heaven, to live as another runner in the human race, to help us cross the line without being disqualified!

The world we live in today finds this message hard to accept. Jesus as a wise teacher who says great things about loving one another and not judging one another? Very popular! Jesus as the one who says “I am the way… no-one enters heaven except through me…” or “Unless you eat my bread and drink my blood you have no life within you?” Not popular at all! But there’s nothing new in Jesus being unpopular. We’ve heard what happened when he preached in his home town. “Who does this guy think he is?” said the people – “We know his family!”

By the way, you might have noticed that in this reading Jesus has four named brothers and at least two unnamed sisters. In Bible days it was common to use the words “brother” and “sister” to include half-siblings and cousins, and our Catholic understanding is that Mary had no other children after Jesus. But you can’t prove that from within the Bible, so be careful not to get into an argument with other Christians about what the Bible says, only about what it means!

Back to St Paul, who was also very skeptical about Jesus being Son of God or even a true prophet, until the day Jesus appeared to him in a blinding light on the Road to Damascus. But Paul devoted the rest of his life to preaching about Jesus and inviting thousands upon thousands of people to follow him. Not all of St Paul’s missions were successful – it might have seemed like a clever trick to say “You have an altar to an Unknown God – let me help you know Jesus!” But it didn’t make many converts and Paul quickly moved on from Athens. In other towns he was beaten and left for dead! Yet Paul never gave up. When he succeeded in planting churches and making converts, that was one kind of victory. When he suffered for the sake of Jesus, that was another!

There’s something in our broken human nature which doesn’t want to say that Jesus is Lord. That same brokenness stopped many of the ancient Hebrews from living according to God’s Law. The Prophet Ezekiel was given a hard task – “Tell those people that they are rebelling against My Law,” said God, “even though they won’t listen to you!” And that same brokenness in us keeps whispering: “You can do it on your own! You don’t need help! You are better than everyone else! You need to win this argument, because if you don’t, you’re a weakling.”

That voice is strong – but that voice is wrong. It takes real strength to do what Ariana Luterman and Alistair Brownlee did. There is a higher victory which is more than winning a sporting event. There is an inner strength which looks at a human dispute and says, “I choose to let you win.” When that’s your true choice, that’s a true victory.

The Danish Poet, Piet Hein, once wrote something like this:

The noble art of losing face may some day save the human race
and turn to an eternal prize* what weaker minds would call disgrace.

We are called to a special kind of weakness. The kind which lets others win because we are strong enough to do so. The kind which lets Jesus be Lord, because we recognise who he is. The kind which will eventually qualify us to enter heaven. If you wish to gain the only prize worth gaining for eternity, and if you are weak enough to be helped across the line, keep on running!


* Piet Hein actually wrote “turn into eternal merit” – I have taken the liberty of adjusting the scansion and prize focus for didactic reasons. I trust that if this causes the poet to lose face, it will be at the price of eternal grace!