Consider Moses

Homily at the Merthyr Catholic Parish for the conclusion of the 2019 Sion Community Parish Mission on the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

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.

The God Who Speaks

Message at the Merthyr Parish Mission, Wednesday 16th October 2019 – theme “Speak, Lord!”, based on Luke 20:9-14.

I wonder what the word “God” means to you? For some people, “God” refers to a lofty philosophical idea – the ground of all being, the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. There’s truth in all these ideas, but such a God can seem remote, abstract, distant.

For others, the very idea of God is mysterious. One day a Mum asked her daughter what she was drawing.

“It’s a picture of God, Mummy!”

“But, darling, no one knows what God looks like!”

“They will when I’ve finished!”

Jesus used pictures to show us what God was like, too – but he painted pictures with words.

A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time.

Sometimes, God can feel far far away. Our Lord Jesus knew that when he told the story we’ve just heard. We are the tenants in the vineyard – but the owner, who has gone to another country for a long time, represents God. It’s not that the owner doesn’t care – in fact, he keeps sending messengers to the vineyard – but it’s just the way things work. He’s decided to trust us with his vineyard, and his presence is elsewhere.

In my life, there’s only one moment where I can say that God spoke to me really clearly. I was still a seminarian at the time, and I’d gone to Glasgow for a week’s holiday. I didn’t have a smartphone, it was Sunday morning, and I wanted to go to Mass. So I got on a bus towards Glasgow City Centre, thinking I would either spot a Catholic Church, or else could get out and ask for directions. When it was clear I was in the heart of the city, with no sign of a church, I raised my hand to push the bell-button.

A voice spoke to me.

Stay on the bus for one more stop. 

Well, I had nothing to lose. I would still be in the heart of the city, so I put my hand down. The bus stopped anyway, but I stayed on and the journey continued. Then the driver called out:

St Andrew’s Cathedral!

A middle-aged woman jumped up, and I followed her off the bus. Was she going to the Catholic Cathedral? Yes. Would she show me the way? Yes. But it also turned out she needed someone to talk to, and after Mass we ended up having a long chat over lunch in a supermarket café. We’re still in touch today, but it was clear that God needed me to be there, at that moment in her life, to give her some emotional support. In my prayer life since then, I’ve often offered God the chance to speak to me in the same way if we wants me to bless other people, but so far that remains the only time I can say God has spoken to me unexpectedly, as clearly as if I’d heard a voice speaking aloud.

God has other ways of speaking, of course. During the last few year, every time I volunteered to work with Sion Community, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy. This was God’s way of hinting I should be doing full-time mission work – and to my astonishment, Archbishop George agreed.

Then there have been times in my life when I’ve just known that God was trying to communicate something, without quite knowing how I knew. For instance, the time I decided that the right way to be a priest was to apply to Cardiff Diocese, or a time as a layman when I knew God was thanking me for serving faithfully at Sunday Mass – I didn’t hear a voice on those occasions, but I knew what God was saying. And then again sometimes God speaks through circumstances, when one door closes and another door opens.

God doesn’t always communicate how, when or where we’d like him to do so – but God does choose to communicate. That’s what Jesus was trying to show us in today’s Gospel. The owner of the vineyard keeps sending servants to see how we’re doing at managing things according to God’s instructions. The whole Bible tells of the many times and places when God has spoken.

Way back in the ancient history of God’s people, a powerful leader called Abraham was in charge of his extended family, his servants and his flocks and herds of animals in a place called Ur, in what we’d now call Iraq. God spoke to Abraham and said “Leave what is familiar, and take your people and animals to the land I have chosen for you.” Amazingly Abraham obeyed, and set out on a long journey, which ultimately brought him to Hebron – a town which today is in the West Bank, 30km south of Jerusalem. God promised that because of Abraham’s obedience, he would guide and protect Abraham’s family line.

Joseph, who was Abraham’s great-grandson, famously had a coat of many colours – but was also able to interpret dreams. Now, not all dreams are messages from God, but it is a way that God speaks, and Joseph had a special gift for understanding what God was saying. At times, this got him into trouble – for bragging that his brothers would bow down and honour him, he was thrown down a well and sold into slavery – but it also saved his family. The King of Egypt dreamed of seven thin cows gobbling up seven fat cows, and Joseph understood God was warning them to store up food in good years to prepare for a coming famines. His 11 brothers did end up bowing to him when they came to Egypt searching for corn to help them survive!

Hundreds of years later, Abraham’s descendants had grown to become a tribe enslaved in Egypt. Moses famously survived an attempt to kill him when he was an infant and fled into exile after killing a violent Egyptian slave-driver. 40 years later, as Moses was minding his own business tending sheep, the voice of God spoke to him from a Burning Bush. Thus began Moses’ journey as the great law-giver, with whom God spoke face-to-face. It took another 40 years for God’s people to cross into the Promised Land, and Moses died before they could cross the River Jordan to enter their God-given home.

More centuries passed. The Holy Land was ruled by kings who were not always faithful to God’s law. God sent prophets to remind people to keep God’s laws. Some prophets focussed on the way poor and powerless people were treated – if no-one else would speak up for them, God would. Other prophets focussed on keeping God’s law – because in every generation, someone would try to set up idols in honour of foreign gods, and often enough kings with foreign wives gave their approval. Famously the Prophet Elijah challenged a thousand prophets of Ba’al to a contest. The true God, he said, would send fire from heaven to burn up an animal laid on the altar. Ba’al’s prophets tried all afternoon to call fire from heaven and failed. Elijah first drenched the altar with water, and then called down so much fire from heaven it was consumed anyway!

Three of the largest books in the Bible are named after prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. When Our Lord talks about three servants being beaten and rejected, he might be inviting us to think of these three prophets trying and failing to encourage all the Jewish people to return to following God’s Law. Our opening song, O the Word of the Lord, is based on the first chapter of Jeremiah, where the young prophet experiences God calling him to speak his Word to friend and foe alike.

What does the owner of the vineyard do when he sees that all these servants have been unsuccessful? Give up? No! He send his own Son!

Jesus is not a messenger from God. Jesus IS God’s message to us. He is God-the-Son, and therefore the human face of God-the-Father. When Jesus speaks, God is speaking to us directly, both in the human language on Jesus’ lips, and the human actions in Jesus’ life. Once, the Apostle Philip said to Jesus, “Show us the Father!” and Jesus replied, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” That doesn’t mean God-the-Father and Our Lord Jesus are the same person, but it does mean that the Son is the perfect image of the Father.

How do we know what Jesus said and what Jesus did? We have the Bible, which gives us the ‘honest truth’ of what Jesus said and did. The Catholic Church doesn’t claim the Bible is 100% correct on questions of history or science, but when it comes to understanding who God is, and how God wants us to live a life which is good, we can rely on the Bible. There are also truths that go back to the age of Jesus and the Apostles but which didn’t get written down back then, which the Church has carried in the way we do things: we call this Tradition. That’s how we know, for example, that the bread used to become the Body of Christ must be wheat bread, not any other grain, and that a man who has become a bishop is not free to get married. After all, St John’s Gospel finishes by reminding us if everything Jesus said and did was written down, there wouldn’t be room in all the books in the world!

“Speak, Lord!”

God does speak. But what is he trying to say to us?

It’s so easy to misunderstand the voice of God. At our Family Service on Sunday, we remembered how God spoke to the young boy Samuel, who misunderstood and thought his master Eli was calling – that’s one way of missing God’s message. Samuel’s problem was that he wasn’t expecting God to speak. Our problem might be that we’re not expecting the things that God is trying to say!

Do any of you play fantasy football? It’s fun to assemble the dream team who would win the league… if only you were the master of the universe! And it’s quite easy to daydream about relationships… you can imagine how your ideal wife would look or how your perfect Prince Charming would behave. The only problem is, no woman or man can ever quite measure up to your expectations. If you build your life on your daydreams, you’re bound to end up disappointed. And we can do exactly the same with God! We can create a dream god who then disappoints us by failing to fulfil all our wishes. It’s easy to get angry when our daydream god has let us down… but that god was never real in the first place!

I would very much like to believe in a God who has dealt with all sickness or disease, all arguments and wars, and never lets anything bad like that happen in the world. But as soon as I turn on the news this evening I’ll be reminded that that kind of god doesn’t exist. So you know what? There’s absolutely no point in believing in a God like that!

This leaves us with two possibilities: either there is no God; or there is a God who exists alongside all the problems of the world at large and my life in particular and yet wants to do something about it. What is God going to do about it? He won’t fix it in the way I wish he would. It’s no good saying, “God if you really love me you won’t let my granny die” or “If you really love me you won’t let me lose my job” because that’s not how God works. No, it’s because God really loves us that he sent the prophets and then sent Jesus. It’s because Jesus died for you that the door to heaven is open.

I have some friends who like to give me a big hug, and others who prefer to give me a kiss. If I try to force them to do something that doesn’t come naturally, they won’t feel comfortable… and if I keep insisting that they do something they weren’t comfortable with, that relationship isn’t going to last for very long. If love isn’t freely given, it’s not love.

So – does God love me? Yes! If I listen to God speaking, I know that he does! But where is he speaking?

There are lots of verses in the Bible where God does want to speak to us, so say that He is Our Father and he does love us. We have to let God be God and love us his way. So let’s try our hardest tonight to listen to God. Let’s not be blocked by our anger about how we feel God might have let us down. Let’s not tell God that he is only allowed to love us in a certain way. Let’s be open to the message that God wants to give to us.

In the basket in front of the altar, we’ve taken many messages from God, all from the Bible, so you can each take one. We’re going to invite you now to come and receive a word from the Father who loves you.


Grateful Lepers

Homily at the Merthyr Catholic Parish for the start of the 2019 Sion Community Parish Mission on the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

What kind of leper are you?

Maybe you’ve never seen yourself as a leper before.

Maybe you’re not sure what a leper is.

Leprosy, common in the days when Jesus was alive, was a disease feared in the way we feared HIV/AIDS in the 1990s – a deadly disease we hadn’t yet learned to control. Anyone with leprosy was an outcast, set apart from the rest of human society.

All of us here, today, suffer from another deadly disease. That disease is called sin. Now I’m not claiming that we’re all murderers or burglars or anything like that… but I am saying that all of us have slipped, now and then, and made at least some small choices which are selfish. And that’s a problem for God – because God is perfect. So from God’s point of view, we’re all lepers. Every single one of us – because we’re all tainted by sin. None of us is perfect, and only perfect people deserve heaven. The Good News is that we know how God deals with lepers – he reaches out and offers us healing.

I’m guessing that most of you here, today, are Catholics. If you’re not Catholic, you’re probably thinking of becoming one, or here to support someone who is – either way, you support the Catholic faith. And I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that Catholics are lepers in today’s society.

Those of you with longer memories will remember the days when most of the people in the Valleys religiously went to chapel, and looked with suspicion on the Catholics. Famously here in Merthyr there’s a road sign to St Illtyd’s where the Welsh version reads literally not “Catholic Church” but “Papist Church.” “Plant Mair!” we were called – “Children of Mary!” I’ll take that insult any day.

Today we face a different set of insults. Our society has changed to the point where half the people around us claim to have ‘no religion’ and look with suspicion on those who do. When we hold fast to our values about marriage and sexuality, we find ourselves increasingly out of step with the world around us. Our Lord did warn us we would be hated if we hold fast to his teachings, so this shouldn’t surprise us too much – but it does mean that to be a Catholic in 21st Century Wales is to be a leper.

So I come back to my opening question: What kind of leper are you?

Today’s Gospel offers us two paths: the healed leper and the grateful leper.

We can be like the 9 lepers who received their healing and went away rejoicing. They were good and obedient members of their Jewish religion. They had obediently cut themselves off from wider society when they realised they had leprosy. They obediently set off in the direction of the Temple when Jesus told them to do so – and only then, because of their act of faith, did they receive the healing.

We can be like that – we come to Mass every Sunday, we can go to confession every Easter and Christmas, just doing what the Church asks of us and trusting that God will receive us into heaven, clean from our sins, saved because of our faithfulness. But was Our Lord Jesus satisfied with the 9 lepers? No! Was he looking for something more? Yes!

When we die, we will each meet Jesus at the gate of heaven. I don’t want him to let me in with a sad smile, nodding that I’ve done just enough. I want him to beam at me and say “Well done, good and faithful servant!” St Paul understood that, when he was writing to Timothy. First, we must ‘own’ Jesus – we must at least be able to say ‘I was faithful to you by loving other people and being at Mass’. “If we have died with him, then we shall live with him.” But more is on offer for those who persevere. “If we hold firm, then we shall reign with him.”

I don’t just want to live with Christ in heaven – I want to reign with him!

There was one leper who understood that. When he received his healing, he saw what Jesus was offering, and he ran back to say thank you. He, and he alone, realised how good it was to put Jesus at the centre of your life. It didn’t matter that he was from the ‘wrong’ tribe – a Samaritan, not a Jew – what mattered was that he recognised who Jesus truly is.

We’re now entering a week of mission, Each one of you is invited to come to the special events which we’re offering you this week. So the challenge to you, people of Merthyr, is this:

Can you do better than lepers?

Will more than 10% of you come to the services?

Look out for the trap which nearly caught Na’aman. He went to the prophet Elisha because he too was a leper; God’s message was to wash in the River Jordan. Na’aman’s first reaction was pride: “We have better rivers near my home, why should I go there?” But that’s where God’s blessing was for Na’aman. In the same way, we might be tempted to think, “I don’t need to go to the Gurnos to meet Jesus!” That would be a pity, because Jesus is going to the Gurnos and would like to meet with you there!

Fortunately, Na’aman swallowed his pride. His healing came because he was humble enough to meet God somewhere else – on God’s own turf. He literally took that turf home so he could keep worshipping the God of Israel.

Our theme this week is: “Speak Lord! Your servant is listening!”

The Lord will be speaking at St Aloysius on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings. He will be speaking at St Illtyd’s on Saturday morning. He will be speaking at the morning Masses in each of the churches. He is speaking to you right now, and inviting you to come.

What kind of leper are you?

The kind that does ‘just enough’ for God?

The kind that won’t go to another church because it’s not yours?

Or the kind that runs to Jesus rejoicing?

Don’t settle for less than what God is calling you to!


Invitation Always

Homily at Sion Community chapel for the 2019 New Evangelisation Training Summit #NESummit19 on the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

On this very weekend, fifteen years ago, I was in trouble.

At the time, I was a student at seminary. We were allowed to go out after Sunday lunch – but we had to be back for evening prayer at half past six.

With another student, I had driven to a meeting to plan a youth retreat. One of the young women involved had asked for a lift home. I worked out that we had time – but only just – to drop her off and get back for evening prayer. After all, she needed our help, and it was the right thing to do.

We got lost!

Eventually, we found the right road. But we arrived back at the seminary five minutes after the start of Evening Prayer. The other student and I had to make a decision – should we go into the chapel late, and hope no one noticed? Or should we say our own evening prayer separately?

We chickened out and decided not to go into chapel. So we took out our prayer books and said the official Prayer of the Church together.

Near the end of Sunday Evening Prayer, there’s a line which is taken from the Gospel of the day.* It was just as well we hadn’t gone in to chapel that evening, because we collapsed in fits of laughter when we read out loud the words: “We are useless servants – we have only done our duty!”

Laughter aside, there is a serious matter at hand here. Jesus wants us to know that God expects us to do our duty. On that day, my colleague and I were preparing for a youth festival where young people would be encouraged to know Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament. Today, we are gathered in this chapel because we want our fellow parishioners to be inspired to share God’s Good News. We want many members of our local parishes and dioceses to join us, confidently proclaiming the message of Jesus anew to those who have heard it but failed to heed its call.

We will face obstacles, even from the clergy. Yesterday, we heard a seminar from Fr James Mallon about how to promote evangelisation when your parish priest seems reluctant. Sometimes it feels like the obstacles come from a higher level, too. Just last week, a story popped up on my Facebook feed claiming that Pope Francis had rebuked a woman for encouraging two people to become Catholics. Oh dear! Can it be true, that the Pope doesn’t want us to evangelise?

The first rule of the Internet is always: check your sources! A little digging found the true report. In this case a woman who belonged to an unnamed movement had proudly presented her ‘converts’ to Pope Francis, in effect saying, “Look what I did! These people are Catholic because of me!”

The Pope was clearly concerned by her personal attitude, and perhaps also because he knew something about the lay movement she belonged to. In that particular moment, he discerned – rightly or wrongly – that these converts had been brought into the Church by the woman’s pushy personality rather than a pure attraction. Therefore, he is reported as saying, in that moment:

“Madam, evangelisation yes, proselytism no.”

Pope Francis, 5 Sept 2019, Maputo, Mozambique

What is proselytism? The Catholic definition is set out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and in a joint study document with the World Council of Churches. In short we’re doing it wrong when:

  • we don’t respect the existing faith of a person, or target people with a particular belief;
  • we speak negatively about other religious traditions;
  • we exert undue physical, emotional or moral pressure, or exploit intellectual or emotional weakness;
  • we offer beneficial incentives to new converts.

Historically, over the last 200 years, Catholic Church in Great Britain has grown by attraction and immigration. For migrants, it’s simple; their faith binds them together and the church is where they can find a safe space to speak their own language and meet others of their own culture. For converts it’s more complicated: over the 12 years I’ve been in parish ministry and responsible for RCIA, I reckon that four out of five converts have been attracted by the ‘nice caring Catholics’ they’ve met; only one in five has had a spiritual or intellectual conversion to what the Catholic Church holds dear.

In that respect, many of our converts are like the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses I’ve met. I often ask people to tell me the story of how their own religion has changed their life for the better. The kind of answer I hear is almost always that they met some kind people from that religious group who helped them in an hour of need. The helped person joins because they feel wanted, not because of the doctrines of the group.

This is as true for Catholics as it is for other religions. I always say to such aspiring members: “I’m glad you’ve met some nice and supportive Catholics. One day you’re going to meet some horrible Catholics. Do you know what will make you want to stay in the Church when that happens? If so, you’re ready to take the next step.” Attraction on its own is not enough to guard against the day something repulsive happens. We must use that attraction to open up conversations about Jesus, and invite people to choose to follow Him.

This weekend has focussed on our calling to preach the Gospel. The call is the same as it was when St Paul wrote to young Timothy: “Never be ashamed of witnessing to the Lord; guard and pass on the knowledge of Christ.” Some of you will have met discouragement and disappointment; but you are here this weekend which means you are seriously considering running NES2020 in your local community. Don’t expect any thanks for this. You are useless servants, only doing your duty. But persevere. Maybe no-one else in the church will thank you, but the Home Mission Office and the Lord will!

There is a middle ground between attraction and proselytism. It’s not always enough to be nice, kind, Catholics and wait for people to ask us why. We do need to speak about our prayer life and our faith. We do need to respond to subtle nudges from the Holy Spirit. We do need to remember that there are three million people in the UK who told a survey that they would go to church if someone invited them. If we build a culture of invitation, if we run our Masses and other church events as if we are always expecting to introduce a brand-new guest to our community, if we inspire our fellow parishioners to believe we are called to grow, not die, as an institution, we will see fruit. So I would like to expand upon Pope Francis’ words and leave you with this call:

“Friends, evangelisation yes, proselytism no; invitation, always!”

Note to readers: Strictly speaking, Saturday Vespers takes a line from the Gospel of Year A, Sunday Lauds from Year B, and Sunday Vespers from Year C. But it happened to be Year C, as it is this year, so forgive me for over-simplifying for an easy read!

What’s God Worth?

Homily at St Bernadette and St John Bosco Parishes, Erskine, for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

What’s God worth?

I’m a Catholic priest from Wales – so like many of you, I’m a Celt from a part of the UK which isn’t England. Both Wales and Scotland have Parliaments with the power to make their own spending decisions, and I heard on the news just a week ago that the health service here in Scotland made a deal with a medicine company… a deal to make available a treatment for Cystic Fibrosis that would normally cost £100,000. That’s good news for the families waiting and hoping that drug would become available.

These are not easy decisions. When the money is limited, a choice to give expensive treatment is a choice not to pay for something else, like employing a couple of people in good work. I’m glad I’m not one of those politicians who have to make difficult decisions about how to use a limited amount of money – asking how much they will or won’t spend to save a human life.

But each of us faces a similar decision every time we come to worship. We’re not asked what another human being is worth to the State. But every time the collection is taken, we are asked to choose what God is worth to us.

You might have heard the story about the aeroplane where all four engines failed, and it was losing height quickly. A Catholic priest was on board, and the stewardess said, “We’re in big trouble – can you do something religious?” So the priest said: “Of course! Please find some baskets – we’re going to take a collection!”

Giving something in the basket is one of the things we’re used to doing when we come to Mass. But let’s stop for a moment and ask, what are we doing, and why?

What we give is a sign of what we believe God is worth. Indeed, our word ‘worship’ comes from the same root as ‘worthy’, and means declaring God to be ‘of worth’. Everything we do when we gather for Holy Mass speaks of our attitude to God. How do we balance the need to welcome friends and strangers with keeping an atmosphere of prayer? Do we take a few moments to think about the things we need to ask God for, or give thanks? And when it comes to the time for the offering, are we digging in our pockets for small change, or are we weighing up what God is worth and giving appropriately?

Jesus knew that the way we treat money shapes our character. Either we possess material things, or they will possess us. If the very thought of giving away money causes you to panic, remember that your Father in Heaven owns all the money in the world. Following Jesus is not a recipe to get rich quick – but the Bible does include a promise that God will not be outdone in generosity, I have found God’s promise to be true – every time in my life when I’ve felt a nudge to give generously, what I have given away more than comes back within a week or two. And there was once a time when I strongly felt God was asking me to donate £500 from my parish funds to help film a Catholic outreach video. To my surprise, the Parish Council agreed we should do this, even though our funds were very limited – and within a fortnight we’d received a totally unexpected grant for £3,000 we hadn’t even applied for! God is faithful! If we prayerfully choose what to give to God, God will honour our decisions!

I’d like to share with you today the 5p plan. The first is prayer – any choice to honour God is something we must pray about. But there are four more ‘p’s and one of them could be the challenge God is offering you today.

First, plan. If you don’t already plan how you are going to give, then consider making a plan. The needs of the poor, and of the church, are too important to be left to an absent-minded search for loose change in your pocket. This isn’t only what you give to your parish – it’s the other charities, whether Catholic or not, that you feel called to support.

Second, prioritise. If you do plan what to give, but God’s work comes at the bottom of the list after all the other bills, ask yourself whether God deserves more than that. This is the scary bit! There are all kinds of logical reasons why we should pay the mortgage, gas bill and credit card bill before we give a penny to the church. But God is King of the Universe, and his resources are infinite. In the Bible – you can look it up in Malachi chapter 3 – God says ‘Test me out on this!’ Give to God’s work as a priority and you will discover that you will not lose out in your personal finances. Humanly speaking , it shouldn’t work – but it does!

Third, percentage. Maybe you already choose to give to charities and to church because it is important to you, as a follower of Jesus, to do this, but you give a fixed amount. But rather than giving £5 a week or £10 a month to a good cause, you could take on the challenge of working out a percentage of the amount. In the days before Jesus, God’s Jewish people practiced tithing – 10% of what they grew was given to God. As Catholics, we’re not obliged to give 10% but I know some who do. It honours the way God blesses us, if we give a percentage of what we have received. And it gives ourselves permission to lower the amount we give if we have a low-income period.

Finally, progression! If you do already give a percentage, is God inviting you to raise it? As our relationship with God deepens, as we discover how to listen to God’s nudges and experience the blessings which come our way when we give generously, God might invite us to take the next step of faith. Maybe even as high as ten percent!

Giving money is only one aspect of our relationship with God, though a key one for knowing our own heart. I’m preaching this message to you who already know God is worthy of your worship and of your wallet. In November I’ll be back with a larger team from Sion Community to spend a whole week with you – a week for deepening your relationship with God, and for inviting other members of the local community to come and start or grow a relationship with God, too. I hope you’ll decide that that’s worthy of your time, and you’ve marked your calendars to keep free 16-24 November.

On your parish website, you declare that in this church you will receive a relevant message ‘that isn’t about rules but is about you and God’. So what I’ve shared with you today is absolutely about you and God. What’s God worth to you? The way you spend your money, on the work of the Church and on other charities, is a strong sign of who God is in your life. If you want a better relationship with God, take one step of faith this week. Plan to give. Prioritise your giving. Give a percentage. Progress that percentage. One of those steps will be a challenge that you can meet, with God’s help!

 Acknowledgements: the four point plan for growing in giving is from Rebuilt by Corcoran and White.

1,000 Sheep

Homily at Corpus Christi Coventry for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C – Home Mission Sunday

Someone’s missing. Have a look around you and see if you can work out who.

OK. At the risk of stating the obvious, your Parish Priest is missing. But please God, he’ll be recovered from surgery soon enough. We’re not listing him among the lost yet.

Try the benches close to you. Is there anyone who usually sits there who’s not there today? And if someone is missing, do you know their name? Do you know how to contact them?

Your parish priest is the shepherd of the Corpus Christi flock, but the responsibility for the sheep is not only his. He might not know that a sheep is missing unless you tell him.

Now have a think about your own family. How many of them are Catholics who are missing from Mass? This is where it gets tricky. You see, not all lost sheep WANT to be found. What happens when the shepherd makes a special effort to bring the 100th sheep home, only for it to bolt through the gate again at the first opportunity? So if you know a sheep who doesn’t want to be part of this parish, what can you do?

If some sheep genuinely don’t like what the Catholic Church stands for, you won’t have much success dragging them back. So the best thing you can do for that lost sheep in your family is to gently share your own experiences of how your Catholic faith changes your life for the better. Where does your faith give you hope? Where does it cause you to rejoice? And here I’ll offer you a hint: as long as you follow Jesus, avoid sin, go to confession when you fail, and, take communion regularly, you are guaranteed a place in heaven. Turn away from Our Lord, and you lose that guarantee.

There again, maybe someone in your family feels they;re no longer welcome in Church. There are all sorts of reasons for that. Perhaps someone’s marriage has broken down and they’ve pursued a new relationship but feel like an outlaw. Perhaps a priest, or a member of some congregation, has spoken harshly to them and made them fearful of trying again. Or maybe they’re just plain ashamed of something in their life and feel their face doesn’t fit in church any more.

So consider St Paul. Paul who approved of murder. Paul the persecutor of Christians. Paul who had to eat humble pie when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Paul who knew Jesus was offering mercy and a seat in the Kingdom of Heaven. Paul as a Christian on his own in Damascus could manage. Paul returning to Jerusalem trying to persuade the apostles he was now one of them? That must have felt very difficult.

Let’s make it as easy as possible for the lost sheep to return. Let’s remind the lost members of our families that Pope Francis has asked priests to ‘accompany’ those who feel lost from the Church community – and that there is a place for everyone in these pews.

Have another look around you. Who else is missing? What about people you know who aren’t Catholics? God wants them to be part of his church, too! Why are they missing? Jesus came to rescue the human race, to invite EVERYONE to be part of his church family. Who does Jesus want to see as part of the Catholic Church? EVERYONE! Let’s hear it again – EVERYONE!

One parish priest can’t do that on his own. There are people each of you will come into contact with this week, whom your parish priest will never meet unless you bring them to church. Someone is missing from this church today because you haven’t invited them to come yet.

On average, each Catholic Church or Mass Centre in England serves a community of 20,000 people – of whom 500 to 1500 are Catholics. We don’t need to target members of other Christian Churches (though it’s great when they want to become Catholics too) – but that still leaves well over 10,000 people living in this corner of Coventry who don’t attend any kind of religious worship on Sunday. A few years ago, a survey showed there were 3 million people in the UK who never attend church but would if a friend invited them to come. That means, that within the parish boundaries of Corpus Christi, in this suburb of Coventry, there are one thousand people who never go to Church – but would, if you invited them. What kind of Catholic, then, knows that there are 1,000 lost sheep in their own community but never invites them to come to Church? What kind of Catholic knows that their church offers a secure path to heaven but doesn’t offer that to their friends?

I know it’s not easy talking about our faith to people who don’t share it. So I want to give a special shout-out to those among you who are willing to talk about faith. Some of you have been catechists to children preparing for Confirmation or First Communion – thank you! Some of you have brought adults to church and walked with them as they have prepared to become Catholic – thank you! Many of you have tried to share faith with your own children and grandchildren and known the heartache of the message not being received – thank you for doing your best!

Not every sheep is ready to be brought home to the Catholic Church. So let’s do our best to find the ones that are. Today’s shepherd left the 99 to find the one. But you, my friends, leave your worries about the ones determined to stray and search for the 1,000 who are willing to come home. Look around you. Who’s missing? One thousand potential members of this church who are among your neighbours, just waiting to be asked!

Showing my workings:

The total population of England & Wales in 2011 was 56.101 million; there were 2882 churches or Mass centres in England & Wales. Assuming an even spread among the general population, each Mass centre serves 19,466 citizens – roughly 20,000.

A 2007 Tearfund survey of Churchgoing in the UK found that 3 million people would go to church ‘if someone invited them’. The original report is no longer available but the Church Times summary suggests this is a result for the whole UK. 

The UK population in 2005 was 60,413,000 – the difference to 2007 will be small so 3 million ‘open’ citizens equates to 5% of the general population.

Now to come up with a ballpark figure. We acknowledge that the years don’t sync, so there will be some error. Secularisation may have hardened attitudes between 2007 and 2019, but some Catholic Mass Centres will have closed. So we can still say that roughly 5% of the general population, or 1,000 citizens, will be open to being invited to each Catholic Church in England & Wales.

Orkney Science Festival Sermon 2019: Words and Pictures

Sermon given at St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, on the occasion of the 2019 Orkney International Science Festival. Readings: Romans 11:33-12:8 and an extract from Richard Feynman’s memoirsIt’s as Simple as 1, 2, 3…

“Nobody knows the thoughts of the Lord God!” says St Paul, and yet he also exhorts us to “serve God with your whole life”. Tricky! Before we tackle that conundrum, let’s begin with a less lofty ambition – to know the mind of another human being.

Earlier in this morning’s service, you were invited to count to 10 in your head. Now you’ve heard a reading from Richard Feynman’s memoirs, you’ll have realised why. How many of you “spoke” to yourself and said “1, 2, 3…” in your imagination? And how many of you used your visual imagination and “watched” the numbers going by? Here’s the amazing thing – we think differently!

In his memoirs, Richard Feynman want on to wonder whether mathematics students had the same experience he did – seeing equations “come to life” with the symbols in different colours – it seems like he experienced a kind of synaesthesia. When I was completing my degree in Physics at Oxford, I never met anybody who reported that, but I did realise that many of my colleagues were intuitive mathematicians. When they looked at an equation, they saw a graph in their heads. When I looked at the same equation, all I saw was a bunch of xs and ys and other symbols. I could still solve the equation, but I did it step-by-step; many of my peers knew roughly what the answer would be because they could ‘see’ it even before they’d applied the rules. By the time I’d finished my PhD I’d realised I’d always be playing “catch-up” with the intuitive mathematicians, and that helped me decide to move out of professional science and into full-time ministry with the church.

One phrase I really hated in my mathematical career was: “It can be shown!” A formula would be handed to the student as a mathematical tool, with the promise that it worked, but the reasons why were too complicated to explain. I never felt really comfortable taking a formula on trust without understanding where it came from. I think Cardinal Newman would have agreed with me. Newman – the 19th Century church scholar who is to be declared a Catholic saint next month – wrote a famous essay called The Grammar of Assent, where he makes a distinction between notional assent and real assent. Notional assent is when I say yes but without a thorough understanding of why I should; real assent is where my ‘yes’ is made in full knowledge of all relevant factors. I daren’t speculate from this pulpit whether that would be useful in politics today!

This is a special year for Cardinal Newman – but also for Albert Einstein. It was exactly 100 ago that an experiment first confirmed Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Einstein had a great visual imagination. His seminal ideas came to him when he imagined what would happen if you were able to race a beam of light or build a whole physics laboratory in a falling elevator. His Special Theory of Relativity explored the question, “What if the Universe had a maximum speed limit – the speed of light?” His General Theory asked “What if gravity was exactly the same as being accelerated through space on a rocket?” Einstein also asked “What if light waves behave like particles when they hit something?” and from that, his contemporaries developed Quantum Mechanics. In the weird mathematics of quantum physics, a particle can tunnel through a barrier which seems too high for it to cross, and a cat linked to a quantum system can be both alive and dead at the same time – as long as you don’t look at the cat to find out! Once you’ve studied physics to degree level, you realise that to understand the Universe, there are times when you have to set aside the common-sense notions which serve us so well in everyday life; things just work differently in the realms of the very small, very fast and very massive.

Our minds are treacherous things. They aren’t wired to understand the Universe as a whole – only those aspects of the universe a human being might meet in daily life. We aren’t all wired the same way, either – we can reach the same results by different methods. And while I was at seminary, I learned another lesson about how what goes on in two people’s heads can be very different.

A Catholic seminary is not just a theological college – it’s also a place of character development, where your whole personality is subject to individual counselling and group therapy. If I hadn’t allowed myself to experience such deep personal scrutiny, I probably wouldn’t have uncovered another way in which I “think differently” from many other human beings. But by the time I was half-way through seminary I’d been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – I was very slightly on the autistic spectrum. Autism affects different people in different ways, so I can only speak from personal experience about how it affects me, but what I realised was this. There’s something absent in my head which is present in most of yours… a little voice which is constantly saying “What would other people think of me if I did this or if I didn’t do that?”

Science Fiction author Isaac Asimov invented the Three Laws of Robotics. His stories imagine a future world where humanoid robots are commonplace, but for our protection, all robot brains are hard-wired with these Three Laws: First, a robot must neither harm humans nor through inaction, allow humans to be harmed; Second, a robot must obey orders given to it, except when they conflict with the First Law; and Third, a robot should protect its own existence, except to comply with the higher laws. A licensed follow-up novel by Roger Macbride Allen, Caliban, imagined the creation of a robot which wasn’t hard wired with these laws. Would the robot run amok and destroy the human race? No! In Allen’s story, the robot Caliban develops its own code of ethics and comes to love and protect humanity! Perhaps Asimov’s concept of a robot brain constantly hard-wired to check for threats to human beings and its own existence can help a Caliban-like autistic person understand what’s going on in the mind of a typical human being.

Richard Feynman found it incredible that someone could speak while counting, because he couldn’t imagine “thinking in pictures”. His colleague John Tukey found it equally incredible that someone counting would “think in words”. Just imagine if you didn’t have that “What if?” voice constantly interrupting your thoughts… would you find it credible that most of the human race suffers from such a thing if you didn’t know it from personal experience? It would sound totally crazy. But for me, realising that the vast majority of human beings suffer from this was a revelation. Finally I understood why, as a child, my Mum was constantly saying things like “you can’t dress like that, what would other people think of you”? Now I know the right question to ask, I can use my brain to deliberately ask the “What if” question, but I don’t have to if I don’t want to!

St Paul’s letter goes on to remind the Romans that within the community there would be people with different gifts. It’s easy to see that there are different gifts of abilities to teach, counsel or lead. But what’s less obvious is that we’re gifted with the ability to think in different ways. This is both a blessing and a challenge. It’s a blessing because diverse ways of thinking lead to all sorts of creativity, from Einstein’s intuitive leap that gravity was the same as acceleration, to the American academic Temple Grandin whose ability to “think in pictures” has led her to design more humane kinds of livestock handling equipment. But it’s also a challenge to understand each other, when we actually think in fundamentally different ways. Professor Grandin describes “pictures” as her first language. We’re both on the autistic spectrum, but I can’t think in pictures at all!

If your thoughts and instincts are not like mine, that causes complications. One of our basic Christian principles is to ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you’. But when you’re not like me, what I would want done to me – for instance, a friend giving brutally honest feedback rather than trying to avoid hurting my feelings – might be very far from what you would want done to you! Life is a lot more complicated once you realise that most of the human beings around you are guided, in no small part, by their fears about what other people might think of them. Richard Feynman was never formally diagnosed as autistic, but I think it’s significant that he entitled his second volume of autobiography What do you care what other people think?

While the human condition is to worry about the reactions of other people, one question our minds don’t automatically ask is about what God would think of us if we did or didn’t undertake certain actions. This is why Scripture admonishes us in I Cor 2:16 to ‘have the mind of Christ’ and today in Romans 12, to ‘let God completely change the way that you think, so that you live differently’. The Eastern Orthodox approach to Christianity has long emphasised our calling to be ‘divinised’, to be transformed ever more closely into living images of God.

Living like God is not easy. Indeed, it seems impossible in the light of today’s passage; who can know the thoughts of God? Yet, in our limited humanity we do try, not least because God has chosen to communicate his Word to us, and above all through the person of Jesus. It is precisely because we are struggling to know the thoughts of God that there is tension among Christians around questions of war and peace, sexuality and gender identity. We know that the mind of God, in general, is to be loving, inclusive and forgiving – but we also see signs that God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thinking does not always match the spirit of the age in which we live. I don’t intend to take a position in this pulpit, beyond asserting that I am a Roman Catholic and I stand where the Catholic Church stands on issues of diversity; my point today is that followers of Jesus struggling to ‘put on the mind of Christ’ will acknowledge that it’s not easy to know God’s will in this area, and we must have the utmost respect for those whose search to know God’s will leads them to different conclusions. All that is required is that they ‘show their workings’ rather than using the superior mathematician’s declaration of ‘it can be shown’ – otherwise we can never give real assent to what is proposed.

We must all stand on Scripture, as we have received it through the Church, otherwise we fall into the trap exemplified last week by a well-meaning landlady in the American Bible Belt. She tried to dissuade a mixed-race couple from hiring her premises for a wedding, because she had once heard a sermon telling her that interracial marriages were wrong. She issued a hasty retraction after asking her pastor where that was forbidden in the Bible, only to be told that it wasn’t!

The late Stephen Hawking famously said that if we knew what ‘breathes fire into the equations’ of physics, if we could therefore understand why there is something rather than nothing, then we would truly ‘know the mind of God’. I cannot offer you the meaning of the Universe today, but I do offer you my perspective as a follower of Christ with Asperger’s Syndrome. Where the world sees a certain naïvety in a person who is willing to offer unconditional forgiveness and do good to those who won’t repay the favour, God sees a childlike simplicity in such a soul – a simplicity lived out in lives such as St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose mortal remains are travelling through Scotland this very month. Perhaps if we were less burdened by the fear of what other people would think of us, we too would be willing to put God’s Word into practice. It’s not so complicated – in fact, it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3!