Inspiring a Generation

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B – Day for Life 2012

This weekend, something very British took place. Seven young people, not famous, were chosen to light the Olympic cauldron, acting together. Those who had power – the organising committee – empowered those who had fame – seven British Olympians – to choose those who had potential to be the torchbearers of a new generation.

A long time ago, God did something similar. The one who bore God’s power – Jesus Christ – empowered those who had fame – his chosen disciples – to collect seven morsels of food from a small boy in a crowd of thousands. The lesson was twofold: for the boy, that the little he had to offer could make an incredible contribution to God’s work; and for the disciples, that they must be humble enough to accept assistance from anyone who had even a little to offer.

The Olympic organisers are seeking to “inspire a generation” because they believe it is good to be involved in sport – and of course, physical exercise is good for the body. We in the Church are also called to inspire a generation – to inspire a generation to follow Jesus Christ as active and fervent members of the church. If exercise is good for the body, then the graces received through being active members of the Catholic Church are good for the soul. Exercise might make us tired in the short term, but we feel the health benefits later on. In the same way, though our faith is demanding at times, choosing to devote time to prayer and to follow the moral teaching of the church makes us stronger in soul. And our soul is inextricably connected to our body; every moral action we perform, we perform through our body. The way we use our bodies reflects the choices we make in the depths of our soul, and therefore St Paul, in one of his letters, urges us to use our bodies for the glory of God.

In today’s newsletter you will find an extended reflection on what it means to use our bodies for God’s glory, but in brief:

  • Through our bodies, we express loving care for one another, through words and deeds of affection and acts of service.
  • By restraining the urges we experience in our bodies, we honour God’s intention that intimate relationships should only take place between a man and a woman who have pledged themselves to each other for life in marriage.
  • Realising that our bodies are made from the materials of the world around us, we should be concerned for our environment and seek to live simply, sustainably and in solidarity with the poor.

But instead of using our bodies in a way pleasing to God, we can be tempted to use our bodies for our own pleasure, or for that of other people.We can give far too much weight to the opinions of others. We stagger under a burden of impossible examples offered to us by the fashion industry and the entertainment business. This results in a battle inside each one of us. The voice of temptation says: “What do I think will impress other people?” But there’s a quieter voice which says “What impresses me most about others?” – and that one is the voice worth listening to.

  • Am I impressed more by those who spend their wealth on designer goods, or by those who live simply and offer the balance of their wealth to good causes?
  • Am I impressed when others inflate the truth about themselves, or do I prefer it when they are balanced or a little self-deprecating?
  • Am I impressed more by those who work a 70-hour week, or those who put their family life ahead of the hope of being tipped for promotion?
  • Am I more impressed by a person who asks for help when they are struggling, or one who toughs it out alone and so gets into difficulties?

If I am less than impressed by those who pursue unrealistic ideals, why should I fall into the trap of chasing them myself?

I am impressed that the Olympic organisers had the courage to choose seven unknowns to light the cauldron. I won’t be impressed if those seven youngsters become famous precisely because of their fifteen minutes of fame. If they go on to achieve sporting glory in the future, that’s a different and hard-earned kind of fame, and the best of British to them!

Our task, as Catholic Christians, is to inspire a generation not to chase what sounds good, but what is good.

We rightly celebrate the achievement of elite athletes, but every wise athlete knows that their body will soon pass out of the peak of physical perfection. Few tennis players will match Roger Federer or Venus Williams in winning tournaments into their 30s; even David Beckham no longer makes the cut for the national football team. Athletes are more acutely aware than most of us of our own mortality. True immortality is achieved not by getting our name into a book of world records – for most records will  be surpassed sooner or later- but into heaven’s record book of those who have lived their lives with love for God and for others: such records are never blotted out.

We in St Dyfrig’s must learn a lesson from the seven Olympians who nominated the young athletes. Our young people need to be given more encouragement and more opportunities to serve in this parish. But this can only happen when we raise our expectations that they should be involved, and when there is a large enough team of coaches in place to make it possible. We must not be like St Andrew, unready to receive the gifts which the young have to offer. But being ready these days means being CRB-cleared and authorised as catechists, youth eladers and senior altar servers, and willing to invest time in the ministries of the church. We do not need to believe that the Church will continue to decline – but decline it will unless we inspire the next generation.

Inspiring a generation starts with each one of us making a serious personal decision to put God’s call at the centre of our lives – perhaps by thinking again about the suggestion I made last week to do something extra for God in the holiday season, rather than brushing aside the idea. This is not a nice idea – it’s a serious point of spiritual direction offered to every member of the parish by its pastor.

Inspiring a generation continues by passing on the flame. We are still actively seeking catechists for next year’s programmes. They will not come from anywhere except the congregations of St Dyfrig’s – and that means, from among us here in this church this weekend.

The boy who gave his seven morsels to Jesus, and the seven young athletes who lit the Olympic flame, in their turn inspire us with hope for the future, a future in which our youngsters are elite examples of faith, the saints of the new millennium for which Blessed John Paul II so often called. Let us not rest until we have found ways to inspire the next generation to inspire us. You may not have much to give, but if the Lord can feed 5,000 people with seven morsels, what will he do with your meagre offering? More than you imagine – but only if you offer it!

Are you taking God on holiday?

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

“The Lord is my Shepherd!” What a beautiful, comforting sentiment. At least, until you think more closely about what it means. Then, it becomes a challenge!

Our picture of a shepherd might come from memories of One Man and His Dog on the BBC – the shepherd whistling and shouting to a dog who nips at the hooves of the sheep and rounds them up into a pen. Middle Eastern shepherds worked rather differently – the sheep would recognise their shepherd’s voice and he would lead them out, calling them by name.

Without a shepherd, sheep can do what they like, go wherever they like – and stray into danger. (This week, news broke of sheep forced to swim while stranded in Morecambe Bay!) With a shepherd, the sheep are safe – but their freedom is limited, too. They are no longer free to go wherever they wish – the shepherd will lead them away from danger and towards safe pastures.

So when Jesus is faced with a well-meaning and curious crowd, a flock of people who have turned out in the hope of receiving a healing or witnessing a miracle, he sets out to lead them to a place where they might not want to go. Yes, he heals those in the crowd who are sick. But he challenges them, too. He speaks about God’s Kingdom – he asks them if they are willing to be faithful followers of God. They already know the Jewish Law, with its command to love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength. But will they embrace it?

Here in Pontypridd, as our schools break up and the University concludes its graduation week, Britain moves into the holiday season. For a few weeks we might be free of the constraints of our employment or studies. And the way we choose to use our freedom is an excellent test of how truly the Lord has become our shepherd.  For while in the rest of the year, we must juggle our religious commitments with work and family, on holiday we have a chance to re-prioritise. So: How much of your holiday are you going to spend with your Father – that is, with the One Jesus called Father?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus invites his disciples to go aside to a quiet place, to rest and enjoy the silence. Have you planned to have a holiday crammed full of activities, or will you make space for silence? There are plenty of quiet places to go to – we have local retreat houses in Brecon and Porthcawl, Cwmbrân and Hereford, who would all be delighted to offer you a Quiet Day. Or if you’re enjoying a staycation in Pontypridd, why not decide to come to a midweek Mass or visit Friday adoration? These are the quiet waters where your Father wishes to refresh your soul.

If you are travelling abroad, remember Jeremiah’s words: God loves and cares for his flock even when scattered among many countries! Our Second Reading reminded us that Jesus has broken down barriers, making all his followers one family. Whichever country you go to, your spiritual family will be there already. Are you planning to meet with them? Will you make time to visit a church, even if your travel plans make it impossible  to be there for Sunday Mass? If the country has ancient Christian heritage sites, will you visit them?

Wherever you plan to go, I have a small gift for you to take with you. On Easter Sunday this year, I passed on Cardinal O’Brien’s call for every Catholic to wear a cross as a sign of faith. The altar servers are now passing out lapel badges which are my gift to you: they carry the cross of St David. If anyone you meet during your vacation should ask why you are wearing a cross, you can say it is because you are a Christian. If they ask you why it is this particular kind of cross, say you are from Wales, and you are proud of the heritage of Wales as a Christian nation.

The Cross of Saint David

Of course, wearing a cross does not automatically make us followers of Christ. The decision to follow is one that each one of us must make when we hear the voice of the shepherd: to follow to safety, or to stray in peril.


The way we use our vacation time, when we have more freedom to choose priorities for ourselves, will reveal much about our true faith. Any dismay we might feel at the thought of making God part of our holiday plans, shows us how unwilling we are to yield our lives to God. The Lord is not your trip advisor, asking you to consider His recommendations and adopt 7 out of 10 commandments. The Lord is your shepherd, inviting you to follow him on the only path which leads to eternal life.

So consider it! Try something different this year – take God on holiday with you! If we treat “giving God some time” as another onerous duty, our love for God will diminish. If we embrace it as our first priority and an act of love, we will not be disappointed: God promises that he cannot be outdone in generosity.

Are you one of the crowd in today’s Gospel, a sheep without a shepherd? Or are you a disciple  who truly loves God with all your heart? By the end of your vacation, you will know the answer.

This sermon was partly inspired by Pope Benedict’s meditations on Christian holidays.

God’s Rescue Remedy – a bitter pill!

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

The Lord be with you…

Lift up your hearts…

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God!

At every Mass, we use these words to plunge into the Eucharistic Prayer, our great expression of thanksgiving to God. As soon as we have done so, we declare a special reason to give God thanks, which comes in the form of the Preface. Today, we have chosen the Third Preface for the Sundays of Ordinary Time, and the reason it offers for praising God is this:

You came to the aid of mortal beings with your divinity
and even fashioned for us a remedy out of mortality itself,
that the cause of our downfall
might become the means of our salvation.

This deserves a little unpacking, so in more prosaic language, this is what it is trying to say:

God, who cannot die, did something to help us human beings whose mortal bodies will inevitably die.

What did God do about it? He made it possible for us to live eternally in heaven, which is what we call salvation.

How did God do this? God used death itself to defeat death. That person of the Godhead which we call the Son took on mortal flesh so that he himself would experience bodily death, and by doing so, by being an innocent and infinitely worthy victim executed for no crime, he would pay a penalty sufficient to pay for all the sins human beings can ever commit.

Every Sunday is a little Easter, a remembrance of the death and resurrection of Christ. This particular Preface emphasises how Jesus experiencing death became the means of our salvation.

Now we, as members of the Church, are each members of Christ’s body, and therefore we are invited to share in the saving work of Christ. It is unlikely that any one among us could be actually crucified – but each Christian is invited to take up their Cross daily, by cheerfully embracing the difficulties of daily life.

St Paul experienced some mysterious affliction which he called the “thorn in his flesh”. We do not know what exactly it was, and perhaps Scripture deliberately hides its exact nature so that whatever our daily difficulties are, we can imagine St Paul sharing in something similar. Paul knew full well that Jesus had power to heal – Paul’s own blindness had been healed by Christ, and God’s healing power had flowed through Paul’s hands into many who were sick. Yet Paul himself was not to be healed of this particular affliction; rather, he acknowledges that God allowed it to remain with him to stop him becoming too proud.

“My power is at its best in weakness.” In the same way, God often allows us to suffer illness, difficulties and hardships so that we ourselves can help those facing similar trials. Alcoholics Anonymous and similar 12-step programmes rely on those struggling with addiction giving mutual support to one another. And extreme talent often has a “shadow side” – the gifted artist who struggles with an over-sensitive artistic temperament, or the scientific genius who lacks people skills. In these cases, St Paul would see the deficiency as a God-given antidote to pride.

On my ordination souvenir card, I chose to quote Romans 8:28 – “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose”. This is not the same as a saccharine assurance of “Don’t worry – everything’s going to be all right!” But it does assert that if we ally ourselves to God’s purpose, if we are true followers of the life, teaching and example of Jesus Christ, that we will pass through the dark periods in our life and find that, in ways quite beyond our control or expectation, God will cause things to work out for the best. Whatever you are struggling with in your life at the moment, know this: God has permitted it, and if you are faithful, God will bring good out of it.

In Praise of Virgin Martyrs

Friday Homily commemorating St Maria Goretti given at St Dyfrig’s, using I Cor 6: 13-5 & 17-20 and John 12:24-26

“The Catholic Church thinks it is better to be a dead virgin than a rape survivor.”

In these scornful words, a media commentator dismissed the kind of saint which we celebrate today: the virgin martyr.

Saint Maria Goretti represents a special class of martyr: those who have died protecting their virginity. We have many accounts from twenty centuries of Christianity of those who resisted the cultural pressure for a woman to marry and incurred the wrath of kings or violent guardians, not least our own St Winefride in Wales. More recently, the church has canonised or beatified women who were fatally injured while resisting sexual assault – Blessed Laura Vicuña, Blessed Pierina Morosini, and today’s martyr, at the tender age of eleven, Saint Maria Goretti.

In our generation, we are acutely aware of the rights of women. Government campaigns have proclaimed that “No means No” and I remember Edinburgh City Centre being plastered with “Zero Tolerance” (of violence against women) banners in the early 90s. It fits well with the spirit of our age, that each human being has the right to refuse the unwanted advances of others, and that violation of anyone’s body is a serious crime.

This message of personal freedom, though, obscures a deeper Christian message. St Paul wrote in today’s Epistle that our bodies are not our own – they belong to the Lord, and that we, as members of His body, are called to use our sexual freedom in ways which give him the greatest honour. This adds a second motivation for resisting a sexual assault – not only does it protect one’s own dignity, but it also honours God who calls us to keep our bodies to be given to one another only in vowed marriage. The Book of Revelation (14:4 gives us a glimpse of a special category of saint, those who died as virgins for the sake of the Lord.

In Danny Boyle’s film, Millionsthe lead character is an adolescent boy preoccupied with the heroic example of Catholic saints, but incredulous at the idea of “virgin martyrs”. I think the boy had trouble believing that any girl would want to stay a virgin. We, as adults, face a different challenge: to see the special value in God’s eyes of preserving one’s virginity, over and above the message of respect for women which demands “Zero Tolerance”.

When the Church beatifies or canonizes a virgin martyr who has died resisting sexual advances, it always does so because the woman’s motivation is clear: she is a witness of faithfulness to God in the face of extreme provocation. In these rare cases we see a woman so devoted to God that there can be no question of choosing submission to evil as a means of survival; she has internalised the same principle beloved of St Dominic Savio – “Death, but not sin.”

The Catholic Church does believe that if we are confronted with a life-or-death moral choice, it is better to enter heaven as a hero than to be a trauma survivor on earth. “Better” in the sense that we recognise that there is a special reward in heaven for those who were faithful under the greatest trial. In some religions, such extremism might produce martyrs willing to take others with them to the grave; in the Catholic tradition, our extremists merely challenge others to follow them to heaven, and to join them in receiving the crown of glory which awaits those who overcome.

“The Catholic Church thinks it is better to be a dead virgin than a rape survivor?”

I would never choose to use that language, but I readily confess that it is better to die being faithful to one’s God-given principles than to compromise with sin. The virgin martyrs stand as examples to all who are tempted to compromise on  moral duties in the more mundane matters of daily life; they remind us that it is always possible to choose Godly principles over passive compromise, in lesser matters as well as greater ones.

Saint Maria Goretti – pray for us!

Humility and Healing

Homily at St Dyfrig’s for the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

“Don’t tell anyone!” said Jesus – but the secret is out. Jesus raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead!

Three times, the Gospels report that Christ raised a person from the dead – today’s account of the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow of Nain, and the Lord’s own friend, Lazarus. In the Old Testament, the prophets Elijah and Elisha each restored a dead son to his mother. In the Acts of the Apostles, St Peter restored to life a sick girl called Tabitha, while St Paul revived a young man called Eutychus who fell from a third-floor window during a long sermon, preached late into the night.

Of these seven remarkable stories, six concern children or young adults. We don’t know how old Lazarus was when Jesus raised him, but if he was of similar age to Jesus, then he may have been a man in his 30s. When the Bible offers us accounts of the raising of the dead, then, it consistently does so in the case of those who seem to have died before their time – which rings true with our deep-seated human instinct that “no parent should have to bury a child”. The first reading tells us that death was never part of God’s plan for the human race; and even if we are limited to “three-score-years and ten”, these miracle stories seem to tell us that the death of a child is still less part of God’s plan.

Yet in the real world in which we live, children die. Just in the last month we have heard the tragic story of the six Philpott children who died in a house fire in Derby, and a two-year-old toddler killed in the house explosion in Oldham. Our parish supports the International Refugee Trust, which works with conscripted and abandoned children in Uganda,  and Let the Children Live, which supports children who might otherwise die on the streets of Colombia. Many of these examples involve human wrongdoing, whether by individuals or the cumulative effect of corrupt regimes; and in such cases we can readily agree with the author of Wisdom, that death comes through those who are, implicitly if not explicitly, in partnership with the Devil. But we also face the mystery of illness: local Catholics have been deeply involved in the founding and running of the Tŷ Hafan chldren’s hospice, a facility which is sadly needed because children can, and do, contract terminal diseases.

In the face of these stark realities, how can we make sense of the miracle stories in the Gospels?

Some Bible scholars would “solve the problem” by explaining away all claims of miracles. What if Jesus only used the same folk remedies as other traditional healers? What if the stories reported as miracles represented natural healings, or exaggerations of how bad the initial problem was? Our Church resists going down this road, because it is only a small step from here to denying that Jesus himself rose from the dead – and if that were not true, our Sunday celebration of the Day of Resurrection would be meaningless.

Another approach would say that God granted exceptional healings because of exceptional circumstances. Elijah and Elisha were the pre-eminent prophets of the Old Testament. St Peter and St Paul, whose feast day we kept on Friday, were princes among the apostles. Perhaps God would work exceptional miracles to draw attention to the messages carried by these men, which were never to be repeated in any other generation. But in fact, there have been reports throughout the history of the Catholic Church of remarkable saints whose prayers have raised the dead, most famously the fourteenth century Dominican, Vincent Ferrer, but also, in the twentieth century, Padre Pio.

The story of Jairus is one which testifies to humility and faith. Although he was a prominent Jewish leader, Jairus was humble enough to turn to the itinerant and controversial rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, in his hour of need. Not only did he come to Jesus, but he knelt at his feet and pleaded. Jairus had enough faith to believe that Jesus could cure his daughter while she was still alive. When word came that the daughter had died, Jesus encouraged him to hold on to that faith.

Part of our humility must be to recognise that each and every child is a gift from God, and sooner or later will return to God. A Christian parent’s attitude must be that their son or daughter is “on loan” from God and entrusted to the care of earthly parents for as long as God chooses. Cultivating such an attitude is an important protection from falling into the trap of blaming God if the worst should happen. God gives no guarantees about the life or health of any child – and indeed, we are blessed to live in an era where medical technology means that it is rare for a child to die in infancy: this was not the case for most of human history.

In my years as a priest, I have on many occasions been told about children who were sick and asked to say prayers for them, but I have never been asked to visit the home of a sick child to lay hands on them and pray for them. Yet the Gospel never shows Jesus working a healing by praying in private, when no-one is watching. Miracles happen – and give glory to God – when in the presence of witnesses, God is asked to restore health and life to one who is ill. Some humble act of faith is needed, some public gesture of placing one’s trust in the Father of Jesus Christ. The woman with the haemorrhage knew where she would find the power which could heal her, and she reached out through the crowd to obtain what she sought.

Without a public, humble, and vulnerable gesture of faith, God’s healing power cannot work to its fullest effect. To ask someone to say prayers in private is a gesture of hope in the face of hopelessness; but to come and pray in the name of Jesus at the bedside of a sick person requires real faith. Do we think of calling a priest to the bedside because we expect healing, or only because we see the last rites as necessary to dispatch a Christian soul to heaven?

The irony of our age is that many will try a bewildering array of alternative and complementary therapies to obtain healing, but few will ask a disciple of Jesus Christ to pray with them for healing. It need not be the priest who does this; in the case of a child, it could be the child’s own Christian parents, godparents, or family friends. If we do not do this in our community, is it because we have tried and failed, or because we have been too afraid? Part of the Good News of the Gospels is that Jesus has the power to heal; but that power is released only by a humble and public act of faith.

Pious faith places a name on the parish sick list, or calls the priest to anoint a dying person, because we know, in our religion, these are the right things to do. Expectant faith pleads with a priest or another trusted Christian to come and pray with a sick person, with the confidence that Jesus has the power to heal, and the humble hope that God might grant a healing in this case. Which kind of faith is your faith?