The Church of “Let’s Sort Out This Mess”

Homily at Cardinal Newman School for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, 2012

Although today celebrates Saint Peter and Saint Paul, I’d like to start by talking about James and Fiona.

Earlier this week, I conducted the funeral of a man called James McCann. For many years he had been a homeless gentlemen, travelling from one town to another, asking for food and company at the doors of many churches. Two years ago, I helped him to get a council flat near Porth. Now, often, when James rang my doorbell, he was both drunk and rank – by which I mean he had a rather large B.O. problem. Occasionally, if I didn’t lock the outer door of my back porch at night, I would find him sleeping there the following morning. And sometimes that meant I would have to clean the floor of the porch because he had – and I am going to use a polite word – made a mess there.

James couldn’t help himself. And yet, when he had sobered up, he was always sorry. Often, he would be back within a day or two clutching a small bunch of flowers, a little gesture of apology. I think James was always genuinely regretful, but he was never willing to make the next step – never able to ask for help to change his life.

At the end of his funeral, we walked him out of church with a bagpiper playing Amazing Grace. It brought a tear to my eye when I thought of the words – that God’s grace has “saved a wretch like me”. Yes, that’s what our faith is all about – when we mess up big time, God wants to be there to catch us. Whatever we have done wrong, God can forgive us and help us make a fresh start. James is now in God’s hands, and because he was always  genuinely sorry for what he did wrong, I believe that he is now on the way to heaven, where at last he is free from all temptation and the power of alcohol.

Then there’s Fiona. Fiona was a student at the University of Glamorgan, who became pregnant, panicked, and had an abortion. Then she was racked with guilt and found herself sitting in the confession box at St Dyfrig’s. Of course, I can’t tell you about anyone’s actual confession, so I am using a false name. I meet one or two Fionas every year. Each time, I first re-assure them that although they have done something very serious in taking away the life of their unborn child, it is not too big a thing for God to forgive. Next, I ask if they ever thought of coming to the Church for help before they had the abortion – and they always say NO. I remind each Fiona that what God wants for them, is that they wait until they are married before they do anything that could make a baby – but if they slip up again and find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, the church is here to help.

In 1997, the Archbishop of Glasgow, Cardinal Winning, shocked Britain by a powerful speech:

Today I issue an open invitation to any woman, any family, any couple who may be facing the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy… to come to the Archdiocese of Glasgow for assistance.

Whatever worries or cares you may have … we will help you.

If you need financial assistance, or help with equipment for your baby and feel financial pressures will force you to have an abortion … we will help you.

If you cannot face your family, or if pressure in your local area is making you consider abortion, come to us, we will help find you somewhere to have your baby surrounded by support and encouragement. We will help you.

I’ve only quoted a few of the things Cardinal Winning said – but you get the message: the Church wants to help you out of the mess that you are in. And Cardinal Winning’s charity still helps women who are in that difficult situation.

My friends, I want to apologise to you. Our church is not always good at communicating what we stand for. Often we present ourselves as the Church of “Don’t Get Into Trouble”. It’s true that part of my job, and the task of every preacher, is to stand up and talk about right and wrong, because God wants us to choose good and keep away from evil. But we are also called to be the church of “Let’s Help Each Other Out Of This Mess”. The Church isn’t for perfect people. It’s for people who mess up and need to know they can make a new start.

Two of those people were called Peter and Paul. St Paul went round murdering Christians before he realised that Jesus was real. St Peter was a coward who talked big talk but ran away when Jesus was arrested. They were both man enough to admit that they got it wrong.

They became saints because they had the courage not only to admit they were in the wrong, but they were willing to choose to live their life differently. The couldn’t do it on their own, but they asked God for help. The Bible stories we have just heard tell us that God rescued them time and time again – God sent an earthquake to bust Peter out of jail, and Paul had so many narrow escapes he could write to Timothy that “the Lord will rescue me from all evil attempts on me, and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom”.

Friends, do you want to be like James and Fiona, or like Peter and Paul? James and Fiona were willing to say sorry, but not ask for help; and because of God’s amazing grace, they can just squeeze into heaven. Once Paul realised that Jesus was real, there was no stopping him; and as for Peter, when Jesus looked at him and saw a man who would be willing to say sorry, ask help, and start again every time he messed up, what did he say? On this rock I will build my Church.

James McCann RIP

I will not normally be posting funeral homilies on this blog, but in this case I am going to make an exception.

Readings: James 2:1-5 & Matthew 25:31-46

We have gathered here this morning to pay tribute to a remarkable man. In the eyes of the world, James McCann was no more than an irritation and a tramp – but in God’s eyes… James was the image of Christ. As another James, an apostle of Christ, has written: “it was those who are poor according to the world that God chose, to be rich in faith and to be the heirs to the kingdom which he promised to those who love him.”

James was one of us. A Christian. A Catholic. A member of this church community – and, I suspect, no stranger to several other worshipping communities in Pontypridd. James was one who knew his faults, and sometimes admitted them. Your quintessential lovable rogue. And a believer.

Born to a Catholic family in Glasgow, James served in the army with the Kings’ Own Scottish Borderers. Later, he chose life on the road, and his favourite description of himself was a “milestone inspector”. Not for James the comforts of settled life under a roof; his preferred landlady was the one he called “Mrs GreenFields”.

When I first met James on coming to Pontypridd five years ago, he was an occasional visitor, hitching lifts on a well-worn circuit which took him to the Lake District,  the Scottish Borders, Yorkshire, and, then back to Wales. He was a frequent caller at monasteries, known to the Benedictines of Pluscarden, the Cistercians of Caldey Island, and many communities of Franciscans up and down the English motorways. One place he yearned to visit but never did was the shrine at Lourdes in France – he loved to pray at the statue of St Bernadette and Our Lady of Lourdes in the grounds of St Dyfrig’s, and on occasion that grotto provided him with refuge from the rain, to spend a stormy night at the feet of the Mother of God.

In his final years, after suffering a couple of strokes, James declared himself to be “mentally, physically, and emotionally tired”. Our parish community helped James to obtain and furnish a flat on the road between Pontypridd and the Rhondda. For James, this flat was not a home, but a temporary shelter to rest his belongings in between road trips. I can’t imagine anything which would have horrified him more than the prospect of spending his final days in a comfortable bed; and in fact James’ body was found on the road from Cilfynydd to Mountain Ash, just after Easter: he died in the place that he loved, on the open road, journeying somewhere new.

In the Gospel, Jesus declared that whatever is done to any human being is done to him. Here in St Dyfrig’s parish, our community outreach group, called the SVP, has a prayer which takes this seriously. In part, it says: “Lord Jesus – you are the poorly paid, the unemployed, or the refugee; you live in a slum, you sleep under bridges.” In James’s case, we might dare to say: Jesus, you stink! Jesus, you’re drunk! Jesus Christ walked among us in the person of James McCann, and challenged us to love him.

The Gospel suggests that when Jesus is hungry and cold, we should give him food and shelter. What the Gospel does not spell out is how we are to love Jesus when he is blind drunk and has decided to send the night in the back porch of your vicarage, or strip naked and stuff his clothes into the washing machine in your outhouse. I am sure representatives of other Christian communities in Pontypridd could tell similar stories. The test of any Christian community is how we offer dignity to a person who has lost the ability to dignify himself. I think I speak not only for this Catholic parish but for the wider Christian community of Pontypridd when I declare that this man was our brother. He brought out the best from us. James was Christ among us. He allowed us to be the saints which God is calling us to be.

In the Catholic tradition, we believe that a soul does not enter heaven immediately, but first goes through an inner journey of coming to terms with all those faults which the mercy of Christ has forgiven. It is written that Jesus has prepared a place for us in his Father’s heavenly home. In James’s case, I suspect it may take him some time to reach that home, but being James, I suspect that he will be very pleased, before settling, to make the journey at a leisurely pace.

James McCann – Scotsman, soldier, milestone inspector, connoisseur  of the open road, and latterly, resident of the Welsh Valleys – we send you on your final journey to the heavenly Highlands with our blessing. Thank you for being Christ among us. Rest in peace.

The Basic Gospel Message

[The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has sponsored a series of Resource Days under the title Crossing the Threshold, exploring ways of helping non-Churchgoing Catholics re-connect with Catholic practice. As part of the Cardiff Resource Day on 23 June 2012, I was asked to lead the workshop on What is the Basic Gospel Message?]

Possibly the most famous verse in the New Testament, if not the whole Bible, is John 3:16 – God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.

These words formed the basis of the theme song for the 1995 World Youth Day; they are deemed so significant by many Christians that the Bible reference is displayed at many sporting events in the hope that viewers will look them up; and for some the reference is so iconic that the numbers alone might be deemed sufficient!

A sign reading "John 3:16" held up in a crowd

Yet I would hesitate to say that John 3:16 is the Basic Gospel Message. It is, in fact, a very rich Gospel message. It speaks of God – a God whom many of today’s generation are unsure about. It speaks of God’s love, which many doubt. It claims that believing in this God is the means to eternal life. And, taken on its own, it seems to speak about a Father who sacrifices the life of his son.

In today’s climate, hypersensitive to child abuse (and our Church has its own share of blame to shoulder for this) such a message about a Father could be misunderstood. Indeed, there has been a vigorous debate among evangelical Christians in recent years about whether the Cross constituted an act of “cosmic child abuse”. The truth, of course, is that Father, Son and Holy Spirit conspired together to bring about an act of love by which the Son took human flesh and freely surrendered himself to death upon the Cross in order to take upon himself all the sins of the world. But all of this needs a great deal of unpacking. Gospel Message? Absolutely! Basic? No – John 3:16 represents the fruits of years of meditation on the deeper meaning of the death of Christ by the fourth evangelist and by the community gathered around him.

If we seek to present a more basic Gospel message, it could be this: JESUS IS NOT DEAD. True, he was put to death on a Cross, but he is not dead now; He is very much alive. And the message “JESUS IS NOT DEAD” can be followed by a second line, tailored to the needs of the one who is being offered the Good News.

JESUS IS NOT DEAD… and everlasting life is real!

For those mourning the death of a loved one, the Good News about Jesus is that he overcame death. His rising is a sign that this earthly life is not the only existence which there is. Jesus taught that there was an eternal life with God, and the Church affirms this in the first Preface for funeral Masses with the beautiful declaration that in death, life is “changed, not ended”.

This angle on the Good News will touch many who have been bereaved, but may not be effective for those who blame God for “taking away” their loved one in an untimely fashion.

JESUS IS NOT DEAD… and forgives sin!

In the pages of the Gospels, Jesus pronounces the forgiveness of sin on many occasions. To a woman caught in an act of adultery, he says: “Go and sin no more.” If the same Jesus who lived in the Gospels is alive today, his power to forgive sin is no less real than it ever was.

This angle on the Good News will touch many who are struggling with guilt. Older citizens with a strong sense of moral duty will be attracted by a message which touches those times they haven’t lived up to their principles. But today’s younger generation have been formed not by Christian morals but the permissive principle that we should be free to do whatever we wish as long as we do not harm others. A message of free forgiveness will not appeal strongly to a generation with little sense of sin.

JESUS IS NOT DEAD… and we are loved by Him!

Jesus assures us that we are worth more than many sparrows; He came to communicate that we are loved by Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Indeed, from the very beginning of creation, when human beings enter the scene, God declares creation to be “very good”.

This angle on the Good News will touch many who feel worthless, but may not be effective for those who blame God for some specific misfortune. The attitude that “if God really loved me, He would do so-and-so for me” can block appreciaton of what God has actually done by creating and redeeming us.

JESUS IS NOT DEAD… and faith assures our passage to Heaven!

For those concerned about their own mortality, the words of the Gospel provides much assurance. John 3:16 indicates that faith in Christ guarantees eternal life. The exact question of what a person has to do to reach heaven is less straightforward: Matthew 25:31-46 (the sheep and the goats) and James 2:14-24 (on faith without works) suggest that what matters most is our works of charity; the earlier verses of John 3 suggest the importance of being baptised, and John 6 indicates that eternal life depends on receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion. For those who have not received the message of Jesus, St Paul suggests (in Romans 2:12-16) that they will enter heaven if they follow their instincts about what is truly moral. One thing is unambiguous: any Catholic who drinks deeply of the sacramental life of the Church and practices love of neighbour and of enemy will surely not be lacking on the Day of Judgment!

This angle on the Good News will be important for those who already believe in the Catholic message, but have become alienated from practice of the faith through some incident such as a marital breakdown, or an offensive comment from a church leader or member. It may, however, be a stumbling block for those with intellectual questions who are not ready to sort through the complex web of relevant scriptures. 

We must also ask: Have non-Churchgoing Catholics REJECTED Jesus, or did they never really know Him? Those who know in their heart that God has spoken and invited them to a life centred on the Eucharist are in genuine danger of eternal damnation if they reject this invitation, but those whose Catholic roots provided only a network of rituals without adequate understanding or a genuine relationship with Christ might be in a situation closer to St Paul’s gentiles.

For us who do know the Catholic message, we know that the Lord has certain expectations of us. We are to be nourished by Holy Communion at the Lord’s table each Sunday and holy day. If we commit serious sin, it is God’s idea (not merely the Church’s) that we receive forgiveness through confession to a priest. We should receive the sacrament of Confirmation to strengthen us to do God’s work in the world, and foster prayer as an integral part of our life in relationship with God.

JESUS IS NOT DEAD… and his power to heal is available to us today!

Healing was an integral part of the mission of Jesus. He healed many people himself, and sent his 12 apostles and 72 disciples to “proclaim the Kingdom of God is close at hand, and heal the sick”. When the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St Bernadette at Lourdes, she specifically asked that sick people should come there on pilgrimage. When the church canonizes any saint, or beatifies a saint who was not martyred, evidence is needed that the candidate-saint has obtained a miracle from God in response to the prayers of the faithful: recognised miracles are almost always healings. The Catholic Church recognises God’s power to heal.

For those who are seriously ill, the Church offers the Sacrament of the Sick through the ministry of priests. But there are also ordinary members of the Church who take seriously the Lord’s commission that his followers should pray for healing with those in need. The Surrey-based Cor et Lumen Christi Community pray for healing as a central part of their calling, and make available video testimonies of those who have experienced remission of symptoms following prayer.

This angle on the Good News will be important for those who suffer from illness and are open to receiving healing from God. There is a fine line between making unwarranted promises that particular individuals will be made well, and raising a general sense of expectation that God will heal – which itself creates a climate more receptive to God’s gifts. It will not be fruitful with those disappointed by unanswered prayer, or with those who have strong intellectual doubts about God’s capacity to intervene in the material world.

Any discussion of healing will lead to the difficult question of why not everyone gets healed. We can be certain that if we don’t ask God, we won’t receive, and if we don’t believe, we limit our capacity to receive (see Mark 6:5). If we do pray for healing, we should expect to see results at least sometimes: Scripture promises as much.


The basic Gospel message is that Jesus Christ is alive and wants to establish a life-giving and fruitful relationship with each and every member of his Church.

For Catholics who have fallen away from the practice of their faith, the most basic thing anyone can do is to help them connect, or re-connect, with Jesus Christ.

Each non-churchgoing Catholic will have their own personal reasons for not attending Mass. Those reasons will prevent such Catholics being receptive to some aspects of the Good News. But with so many dimensions to the message of Jesus – it is true, gives life, it restores hope, and may be accompanied by healing – there will surely be some aspect with the potential to touch any Catholic not currently living their faith.

Become What You Receive

I’ve just returned from leading a pilgrimage to the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin.

Part of the Congregation for Mass at Croke Park, Dublin, on Sunday 17 June 2012, which was the Statio Orbis mass concluding the Eucharistic Congress

The theme chosen for the Congress was taken from Lumen Gentium, one of the documents of Vatican II: “Communion with Christ and with one another.” With this in mind, I deliberately designed the pilgrimage to express both. We travelled by coach and ferry, not aeroplane – more time to build communion with one another, and an act of ecological solidarity with the developing world. We began and ended with pauses for prayer in the chapel of Llantarnam Abbey – expressions of our communion with Christ. We celebrated Mass together at the end of the long outward journey and with Archbishop George before commencing our return journey.

The pilgrims from Cardiff who gathered with Archbishop George Stack to celebrate Mass at the Chapel of Blessed Margaret Ball, Santry, Dublin, on Monday 18 June 2012.

Several times during the trip, I was asked if I was enjoying the experience. That’s the question I look forward to least. As organiser, it’s my job to worry about details so other pilgrims don’t have to, and sometimes to miss workshops and seminars while sorting out details. It’s harder to relax into the big set-piece liturgies with one’s mind on the details of what happens next. For me, this pilgrimage was not a nourishing spiritual experince – but then, I didn’t expect it to be. I didn’t set ambitions to go to any particular talk or prayer session because I knew I would be a hostage to logistics. So if I ever gave an answer which implied that I was underwhelmed by the Congress, that would say nothing about the Congress itself, but everything about where my focus was. Once the group had all returned home safely and all loose ends were tied up – then I could relax and rest in the comfort of a task well done.

Altar servers sweep rainwater off the steps of the altar on the temporary stage at the Dublin RDS Arena.

At the end of our pilgrimage, we gathered for a final prayer in the chapel of Llantarnam Abbey before dispersing, and I share with you my parting words to the pilgrims:

When we celebrate Eucharist, we are celebrating a sacrifice freely made by one so that many may receive blessings. On this pilgrimage, it has been my privilege to be the one making sacrifices, so that you may all enjoy the Congress experience. But a day will come when each one of you will be responsible for the blessing of others. When that day comes, do what I did: choose to make the sacrifices, do so cheerfully, and for the good of those in your care. In that way you will live out the great exhortation which was placed above the main altar of the Statio Orbis, “Become what you receive” – and you too will be Eucharist for others.

The canopy over the stage for Mass at Croke Park, with the caption “Become What You Receive”

Completing the Armour of God

Reflections on my Pilgrimage to Pellevoisin… on the Memorial of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

A soldier going into combat knows that he must choose his supplies carefully, for he can only use what he can carry. Armour is heavy, and whatever is chosen must be carried through the day of battle. But few soldiers would leave aside from their kit a photograph or token of their wife, to give them strength in their darkest hour.

In my undergraduate days, a member of the student rosary group once commented on how a scapular closed a gap which would otherwise exist in the “Armour of God” – for the list given in Ephesians 6:10-17 contains no item to protect one’s back. Since a scapular is composed of panels over one’s back as well as one’s heart, my friend saw his Brown Scapular as a sign of Our Lady standing behind him to guard him from unexpected attacks.

The rear panel of the Scapular of the Sacred Heart of Pellevoisin

In the case of the Scapular of Pellevoisin, Our Lady did not prescribe a design for the rear panel, but said “I reserve it for myself”; Estelle should make a suggestion and the church should decide. Estelle proposed an image of Mary as she had appeared at Pellevoisin, encircled by roses and with the Lord’s graces flowing from her hands. The Church authorities agreed, but decided that a title should be printed there: MATER MISERICORDIAE – Mother of Mercy. To wear the Scapular of the Sacred Heart, then, results in an image of the Mother of Mercy guarding one’s rear.

It is part of the official teaching of the Church that Mary is indeed a channel of God’s grace to us, a mediatrix of grace. The image of Mary as a channel of God’s grace is not new. When she appeared in 1830 to St Catherine Labouré to reveal the ‘Miraculous Medal’ there were similar rays of grace flowing from her hands – and a sad acknowledgment that more graces would flow if only we remembered to ask for them. For this reason, we are invited to pray the prayer inscribed on the medal – O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.

The Belgian mystic, Berthe Petit, taught us to invoke the Heart of Mary as the Sorrowful and Immaculate HeartO Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us who have recourse to thee. Mary’s Heart is Immaculate because of God’s gift, but also sorrowful because of Mary’s free choice to unite herself to the suffering work of her Son.

Our Lady said to Estelle Faguette that the Heart of Jesus “has so much love for mine, that He cannot refuse my requests. Through me He will move the most obdurate. I am come in particular for the conversion of sinners.” The same message of converting sinners was Mary’s revelation to Sr Justine Bisqueyburu in 1840, through the promotion of a Green Scapular with the prayer: Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Through her messengers, the Mother of God has offered many gifts to her children. A promise of great graces to those who wear a ‘Miraculous Medal’ around their necks; a gift of conversion of sinners through the Green Scapular. The Scapular of the Sacred Heart revealed at Pellevoisin is attached to no special promise, other than the assurance those who wear it in the right spirit are performing an act of devotion which cannot be surpassed. Indeed, there is no shortage of spiritual weapons on offer from the treasury of the Mother of God.

A soldier going into combat knows that he must choose his supplies carefully, for he can only use what he can carry. Our Lady told Estelle Faguette, on showing her the image of the Sacred Heart, that “The treasures of my Son are open; let them pray.” We might hear an echo of the message to St Catherine Labouré that we should pray for the graces we need; but we might also pray for wisdom in making a choice of which devotions to pursue.

I have devoted these pages to sharing the message of Pellevoisin not because it teaches a devotion which everyone must embrace, but because it is another gift on offer from the Mother of God, which some in the Church will feel called to take up. Others will fight with other spiritual weapons, and this too is a blessing; for together, we make up the One Body of Christ.

O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.

Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us who have recourse to thee.

Immaculate Heart of Mary, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

The Day of the Sacred Heart

Reflections on my Pilgrimage to Pellevoisin… on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Pellevoisin offers us an unusual specimen of Christian imagery: the Heart of Jesus on the breast of Mary. To find the Blessed Mother carrying her child – in her arms or in her womb – is common enough; and the image of Mary showing her own heart, suffering in sympathy with her Son’s passion, is familiar through the imagery of Fatima, Beauraing and the Green Scapular. But here, the Mother bears the Heart of her Son in exactly the same way in which she asks us to bear it – on a simple piece of cloth over her breast.

Here, then, we see Mary as a simple disciple, one who – like us – chooses to imitate the love shown by Jesus Christ and make it her own.

When Jesus spoke to St Margaret Mary in Paray-le-Monial in the seventeenth century, he made numerous promises, including one of blessings to any family or community which honoured Him by reverently displaying an image of His Sacred Heart. It is from Paray-le-Monial that we receive the establishment of today, the Friday in the week following Corpus Christi, as the special day which honours the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Our Lord asked for two special practices today. One – in an age where Catholics only rarely received communion because of an exaggerated respect for the holiness of the Blessed Sacrament – was to receive communion on this day. The other was to make an act of reparation for indignities committed against the exposed Blessed Sacrament: a theme which is also found at Pellevoisin.

If you are reading this too late to make such an act on the day devoted to the Sacred Heart itself, then recall that through St Margaret Mary, the Lord also invites us to make such an act of reparation on any Thursday evening, and to make a special effort to receive communion on the first Friday of every month. Above all, remember that the greatest act of reparation is to take stock of your own attitude to the Blessed Sacrament, and to choose to amend anything which falls short of what your King, Saviour and Friend deserves.

The Deeper Message of Pellevoisin

The statue marking the place where Our Lady appeared to Estelle Faguette, in the shrine at Pellevoisin

Reflections on my Pilgrimage to Pellevoisin… on the day when Cardiff Pilgrims begin their journey to the International Eucharistic Congress with a 6 a.m. service of prayer at Llantarnam Abbey.

So far we have reflected on the invitation to wear a particular kind of scapular and the spiritual message implicit in this, and also the explicit call for a greater reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament. But this is not to exhaust the depths of the message of Pellevoisin. There is also a lesson for us in the timing of the revelations…

On many occassions, Our Lady counselled the visionary Estelle Faguette to be “calm”. Twice in July Estelle was exhorted to “be calm” and to be “still more calm”. When the Scapular of the Sacred Heart was shown to Estelle for the first time on September 9, Our Lady explains that Estelle’s frame of mind was crucial:

You deprived yourself of a visit from me on the 15th of August; you were not sufficiently calm. You have indeed the French character, wishing to know all without learning anything, and to understand everything before knowing it. I would have come to you yesterday, too; again you deprived yourself of it. I was waiting for this act of submission and obedience from you.

There was a message here not only for Estelle, but all those who heeded the apparitions at Pellevoisin. On the night of Estelle’s healing in February, Our Lady declared:

What afflicts me most is the want of respect shown by some people to my Divine Son in the Holy Communion and the attitude taken for prayer, when, at the same time the mind continues occupied with other things. I say this for people who pretend to be pious.

Choosing to pray requires an act of will; choosing to remain focussed in time notionally given to prayer requires considerable effort. Estelle missed out on an earlier apparition because she had not chosen to give time to prayer, or to allow sufficient time and space for her prayer to be recollected.

Most of us have probably had the experience of being put “on hold” by a friend whose mobile phone has rung in the middle of a conversation; perhaps we measure the importance of our relationship with the phone’s owner by the brevity with which the call is dealt. How do we deal with our own incoming calls? How do we create time and space for our conversation with God in a way which gives respect to the King of Kings?

I am not a “morning person”, and throughout seminary and for the first five years of my priesthood, I made it my rule to give the “first available” time in the working day to God. Often that time slipped because of the “must do” and “just do” jobs. Once the day gets going and phone calls or visitors arrive, there are things I must do. And in odd fragments of time there are things I’ll “just do” before I pray – but the 5-minute job easily ends up taking 20, and too often my prayer time had slipped to the end of the day; it got done (usually) but when tired, distractions were common and the effort needed seemed so much greater.

At the start of Lent this year I decided I was going to have to bow to the inevitable: the only way to put God first was to literally put God first, rising early enough to give God an hour of prayer before the phone was likely to start ringing. God will not be outdone in generosity, and I have experienced the months since Lent as months of considerable blessing.

So why not give it a go – try praying first? If you are battling with distractions, fear not: help is at hand.

Pastoral Letter: The Feast of Corpus Christi

Pastoral Letter to be read at St Dyfrig’s on 9/10 June 2012 – Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ



10 JUNE 2012


 Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

Today the Church is celebrating one of the most beautiful feasts of the whole year – the feast of Corpus Christi. On this day, we give thanks for the extraordinary gift Jesus makes of Himself in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. It is through our Holy Communion with Him and with each other that the Church has its existence. No wonder the Bishops at the Second Vatican Council said that the Eucharist is the summit of the activity of the church. It is also the source from which all its power flows. Put in other words “The Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist”.

Catholics have always had an extraordinary devotion to the presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. This feast of Corpus Christibecame universal in 1264; that is the year Pope Urban IV responded both to popular devotion and the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, and decreed that there should be public proclamations of our faith in this mystery. Prayer, processions and adoration are all part of the honour we give to the Blessed Sacrament.

The sacramental presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is a focal point in our churches. Its sheer wonder claims our reverence. This is just one reason why we genuflect to the tabernacle on entering a Catholic church. Yet the Eucharist does not exist simply to be observed in a passive way. The abiding presence of Jesus in our midst is a dynamic one. In celebrating the Mass, in receiving the Holy Communion, in adoring the Blessed Sacrament, we are literally “giving thanks”. The many different descriptions we give to this mystery are an indication of the depth of its meaning.

When the Bishops of the Catholic Church met at the Second Vatican Council fifty years ago they said of the Eucharist:

“At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Saviour instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved spouse the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is received, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us”.

Another name for the Eucharist is Viaticum “Food for the Journey”. This is perhaps best known when the Blessed Sacrament is brought to a person who is dying. But the “Bread of Life” which we receive regularly in Holy Communion is our nourishment for the daily journey of life in faith which each of us has to make. As Catholics, we come together Sunday by Sunday as members of God’s pilgrim people in the footsteps of Abraham, our father in faith. That is one reason why pilgrimage is so important in our Catholic life. The journey to a holy place, made together, is a sign of an inward journey which we make towards that union we share with God in this life and the next.  The processions and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament which will take place today both in the grounds of Cardiff Castle and at Llantarnam Abbey will be public expressions of the pilgrimage of faith which we all make together.

Early next week a group of pilgrims from the Archdiocese will travel toDublinto participate in the fiftieth International Eucharistic Congress.  People from all over the world will gather to proclaim their universal faith in the Eucharist and pray for the reconciliation, healing and forgiveness which are also at the heart of the Eucharist. The Cardiff pilgrims will express solidarity and communion with the Catholics of Ireland and acknowledge the debt owed by the church in Wales and throughout the world for the heritage of the Catholic faith shared over many generations by the people of Ireland.

None of us can fail to notice the decline in church attendance experienced by all denominations in Wales and England, and beyond, in recent years. Successive Popes have emphasised that Evangelisation is part of the identity of the Church. Concern for non church going Catholics must be part of the outreach we make during the Year of Faith called by Pope Benedict XVI.  This will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.  The “Year of Faith” will begin in October. To respond to our responsibility to reach out in new ways, a one day conference called “Crossing the Threshold” will be held in Cardiff on 23 June.  It will explore ways in which we as a Church can create an environment in which non church going Catholics can be welcomed to a renewed understanding of their faith. This is essential if we are to take the Evangelisation, of which Pope Benedict speaks, seriously. If the Eucharist is, indeed, the “source and summit” of the life of the Church, it is our duty to ensure that the Bread of Life is shared with all who have need of it.

What better day to begin afresh than on this feast of Corpus Christi?

Yours devotedly, +George Stack Archbishop of Cardiff

Rev Gareth Leyshon writes: In the absence of a sermon this weekend, you may wish to read reflections on my recent Pilgrimage to Pellevoisin… concerning the Scapular of the Sacred Heart and the Pellevoisin message of reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament.

Endeavouring to repair outrages…

Reflections on my Pilgrimage to Pellevoisin… for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi).

In my last post I reflected on the call to wear the Scapular of the Sacred Heart, as the most prominent aspect of the message of Pellevoisin. This can only be understood as “most pleasing to Mary” if it is accompanied by an inner intention to model one’s own heart after the Heart of Jesus. Yet this is only one half of Our Lady’s request…

“Nothing will be more acceptable to me than to see this livery on each of my children, and that they all endeavour to repair the outrages received by my Divine Son in the Sacrament of His Love.”

An altar is now placed in what was once Estelle’s bedroom at the mansion at Pellevoisin

All sin offends God, by its very nature. But here Our Lady was specifically speaking of sins against the Blessed Sacrament. What does this mean for our own day and age?

Most of humanity sins by not obeying the command of Jesus, “Take this, all of you, and eat of it, and drink of it.”

Christians outside the Catholic and Orthodox traditions sin by failing to recognise that Jesus wishes to feed us with his true body and blood by the hand of a priest.

Today it is perhaps not well understood among Catholics that not all services of Holy Communion are of equal spiritual value; it is worth restating that the power to make present the Body and Blood of Christ is only given to a priest through the laying on of hands by a bishop who can trace his line of ordination directly back to the Apostles. We do not deny that God pours out blessings on other Christian communities who celebrate Holy Communion following their own tradition; but we cannot affirm that their bread and wine truly becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, and for this reason Catholics cannot receive Holy Communion with integrity at Protestant services.

Christians within the Catholic and Orthodox traditions may sin –

  • if they personally don’t believe that the consecrated bread and wine become the Real Presence of Jesus Christ (and apparently the majority of Catholics in Ireland now don’t);
  • if they receive Holy Communion without examining their own sins and first confessing those which are serious; and
  • if they don’t receive Holy Communion in a reverent manner.

The teaching of the Catholic Church is that a communicant may receive Holy Communion in the hand or on the tongue. It is always permitted to receive on the tongue, and communion in the hand is authorised at a national level, not by individual priests.

I believe that reverence is fundamentally an attitude of heart. It is possible to receive Holy Communion  reverently in the hand. For years, before my ordination as priest, I did so myself – I would take the Host, step to one side, make a short prayer in my heart of trust and recognition of the Lord who deigned to dwell in my hand at that moment, and then consume the host. I also believe it is possible to receive Holy Communion on the tongue irreverently – through a sinful lifestyle, immodest dress, or by an ostentatious display of piety in receiving communion.

I am aware that there are currents of opinion which say Our Lord or Our Lady have told certain visionaries that Jesus does not want communion in the hand; or that the official permission was only granted because of pressure from certain lobbies (possibly Masonic) within the Church; or that Mother Teresa of Calcutta, now Blessed, is alleged to have disapproved of the practice.

But Our Lord entrusted Peter with authority over his Church, and it cannot be the case that anything which the Successor of Peter has formally permitted could be intrinsically irreverent. I applaud those Catholics who receive on the tongue because they believe it is “more reverent”. I also applaud those who exercise their choice, in nations where it is permitted, to receive in their hand in order to have a moment of reverent recollection free from the distractions of the movement of the communion queue.

On this Solemnity which commemorates the Lord’s gift of His Body and Blood to His Church I ask you, gentle reader, to examine your conscience. Do you truly believe that Jesus is present, yet hidden, in the most profound way possible in the Blessed Sacrament? And if you do, is there anything lacking in the way you pay Him respect whenever you visit His House? If you have sinned, place your trust in His Mercy, and make your peace with Him through His priest at the earliest opportunity. And in this way you too will help to repair outrages against the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.

Wearing the Livery Most Pleasing to Mary

A reflection on my Pilgrimage to Pellevoisin

The Scapular of the Sacred Heart, as revealed to Estelle Faguette at Pellevoisin, 1876

Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the message of Pellevoisin – and certainly the one which stuck in my mind when I first read the story of this shrine – was the invitation to wear a Scapular of the Sacred Heart because “nothing is more agreeable” to the Mother of God than to see this livery on each of her children. I am a very practical person and I like simple instructions: “Do this. Don’t do that.” The Lord’s command to “Do this in memory of me” led to my becoming a Catholic in 1990. A request from Our Lady to “wear this, for nothing is more pleasing to me” was therefore irresistable.

Yet these words must be taken for more than their face value. Christianity is not a religion in which we are saved by wearing talismans or amulets. In the light of what we read in the New Testament, can it possibly be true that “nothing pleases the Virgin Mary more” than believers wearing a patch of cloth on their breasts?

Any scapular represents an act of obedience; it is a sacramental making present the “yoke of Christ”. Many scapulars are associated with particular religious orders and are worn by their affiliate members; each religious order represents a particular path to holiness. Each order has its own spirituality, being one of many such paths within the One Way, who is Jesus Christ; the scapular is a yoke to the rule of that order.

Scapulars are not new in the history of the church, but the design of the one given at Pellevoisin is novel; and unlike the more ancient scapulars, for which boundaries between sure history and pious legends have become blurred, there is no doubt about its origin in a private revelation.

Several different kinds of scapular with their cords tangled.

When you wear more than one scapular, the cords soon become tangled. The same might be said for trying to embrace more than one kind of spirituality.

If you try to wear more than one scapular, they quickly become tangled. In the same way, taking on too many devotions, a scattergun approach to spirituality, can lead to confusion. No particular scapular, no one devotion, no prayer ascribed to a private revelation, is ever necessary for a person to live a life pleasing to God; each one represents a simple invitation from heaven to which some Christians are called to respond. It is more important to choose to do a few things well than to attempt to embrace everything.

Why, then, might a soul choose to take on the Scapular of Pellevoisin rather than any other yoke? Such a soul would be choosing to wear the image of the Heart of Jesus over their own heart, which surely represents the aspiration to love as Jesus loves.

The Scapular of the Sacred Heart of Pellevoisin – Front

The Heart of Jesus sheds drops of blood, recalling the choice made by Christ in Gethsemane to accept the Father’s Will, no matter what sacrifice that might entail. The Heart is crowned with thorns, reminding us how Christ was mocked in the sight of jeering crowds. The Heart is surmounted by a Cross, the Cross which the Lord bore to Calvary with all His remaining strength. The Heart also blazes with love, represented by the fire which erupts from it to surround the base of the Cross. Those who wear such a scapular must choose to do the Father’s Will whatever the cost, accept mockery before an unbelieving world, and like all disciples, carry their Cross each day until they arrive at the glory of heaven.

When Our Lady says “I love this devotion”, surely she means not only the act of wearing such an image over one’s breast, but the daily devotion involved in living out these values which it represents. These values embody a way of living out the Great Commandments to love God and neighbour; and this being the case, then indeed, Our Lady can truly say that nothing could be more pleasing to her.