Behold, I do a new thing!


Homily given at morning Mass at the Revival Weekend Conference run by the National Service Committee for Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Wales. (The Gospel of the day was the Parable of the Talents.)

Today, 31st August, the Catholic Church in England has the option of celebrating “Saint Aidan and all the Saints of Lindisfarne”. I’m going to borrow that feast for use in Wales as a celebration not only of Lindisfarne but of all our Celtic saints.

Lindisfarne is an island off the coast of Northumbria, where St Aidan founded a monastery at the invitation of the local king, Oswald, in the year 635. The Celtic monks often chose islands for their monasteries; they did so in Wales, at Caldey Island in the south and Ynys Enlli – Bardsey Island – the “island of  twenty-thousand saints” in the North. In those days, the first calling of monks was to live lives set apart for prayer, and these remote locations protected the privacy, and hence the rhythm of prayer, for the monks who lived there. When not located on islands, monasteries were often placed deliberately in remote locations. Even so, people came, seeking spiritual guidance, medical advice or education; and the monks offered hospitality to those who came. Some became centres of learning, and the monastery at Llantwit Major became as renowned in Europe as Oxford and Cambridge are today.

It was part of the rhythm of Welsh life that people WENT TO monasteries. They were places of safety, learning and spirituality. Under the guidance of saints like Cadoc and Illtud, Dyfrig and David, they flourished throughout the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries. After 1066, Wales was populated by Cistercian monks, more connected to Rome than the earlier Celtic monasteries, but again, sited in remote locations like Strata Florida.

But then Wales changed. More and more people were living in towns, distant from the monasteries. Something new was needed.

That something new came in the form of the friars, religious orders whose members were called to move from place to place.

Dominicans specialised in preaching; they were present all over Wales, including Cardiff, Brecon and Bangor.

Franciscans specialised in serving the poor, and did so in Cardiff and Anglesey, and even here in Carmarthen.

Carmelites, originally hermits uprooted from their settlement in the Holy Land by the evershifting politics of the Middle East, came to Britain spreading a deep calling to a life of prayer, and founded a friary in Denbigh.

Although the houses founded by these orders were fixed locations – urban locations – different friars came and went, bringing their particular gifts. Through their ministry God’s Word, a new openness to prayer, and charity-in-action were brought to towns, and the townsfolk were blessed. Those who would never have dreamed of travelling to a rural monastery were now able to encounter the Gospel in word and in action.

We are gathered for this weekend’s conference under the title Behold, I do a new thing (Isaiah 43:19). Last night Derek spoke about how the “new thing” in Isaiah’s writing differs from the old.

The old blessing given was when the Israelites passed out of Egypt and took possession of the promised land, on the safe side of the River Jordan. They were a closed-in community. Marriages with strange tribes were discouraged. If foreigners did want to join the community and worship the God of Israel, this was possible, but not something the Israelites went out of their way to promote.

But Isaiah’s new thing was a prophecy of rivers in the wilderness.

What does this tell us about charismatic renewal in Wales?

Last month, in Lampeter, I attended a gathering of about 200 church leaders, as part of the New Wine Cymru network. They were mostly Anglicans or independent church leaders, and they came from all over Wales, not just the big cities, but many of the small villages too. What they all shared in common was a hunger to see Wales blessed by the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Some New Wine leaders shared prophecies they had received about Wales. There said that in the past, there had been a season of blessings which were mainly for the churches. But God was about to release a season of blessings when God’s glory and healing power would stream out of the churches and affect people on the streets. The new wave of blessing is for the whole nation.

In our Catholic experience, we know there was a time when prayer groups were strong and the Carmarthen conference attracted around 400 people. We were like Israel, rejoicing to find ourselves in the promised land; we used the gifts to bless each other within the prayer groups, rather than taking them out to the wider community. Once we had formed groups of people who enjoyed each other’s company, newcomers could find their way in if they really wanted to, but we stopped going out of our way to invite new people in. The Spirit’s gifts were rarely used outside Prayer Groups, Conferences, or Days of Renewal. That wave of blessing has faded and now our prayer groups, where they still exist, are mostly shadows of their former selves.

Isaiah’s “new thing” is meant to be streams of water in the desert. What is the desert, if not the secularised people of Wales today? What are the streams of living water, if not the blessings which God has in store for them? Dare we hope that God is going to pour out healings and prophetic upbuilding on the whole population of Wales, those who never darken the door of a church?

Yes, God can do this!

But how will God do this?

It is not usually God’s way to appear to non-believers in a dream or a vision, to convert them unaided. Yes, God can do that – but he normally appears to them in the form of his body. That’s us!

The Bible leaves us in no doubt that as followers of Jesus, we are called to be filled with the Spirit to do the same works that he did – indeed, even greater things!

Today’s Gospel tells us that God has high expectations. If God has entrusted a gift to us, he expects us to use it. I would go so far as to say that if you’ve had the gift of tongues but hardly used it in your personal prayer, you have let God down. If you’ve known someone who is unwell, but not offered to pray with them for healing, you have let God down. If you know someone who has need of being built up, but you’ve not asked God to inspire a word to share with them, you have let God down. You do not want to find yourself keeping company with the “wicked and lazy servant” who kept God’s gift safe and unused. Yes, trading the sum entrusted to you is a risky business, but it’s what God expects us to do. If God doesn’t deliver the profit we’d like, that’s God’s responsibility. If we haven’t tried, that’s ours.

Am I not being a little harsh? If the Lord’s warning in the Bible is too much for you, try the Church’s teaching, from paragraph 3 of Apostolicam Actuositatem:

The Holy Spirit … gives the faithful special gifts also “allotting them to everyone according as He wills” …  From the acceptance of these charisms, including those which are more elementary, there arise for each believer the right and duty to use them in the Church and in the world for the good of men and the building up of the Church…

You have the RIGHT to use the gifts God has given you.

You have a DUTY to use the gifts God has given you.

And here’s the good news: if you haven’t been doing this – indeed, if you feel your fruitfulness in the gifts has faded because you haven’t made good use of them – no less an authority than St Thomas Aquinas teaches us that as soon as we repent through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, God restores us to a place with all the gifts and graces which we had before we sinned. If we, here and now, today, truly repent of keeping the Gifts of the Spirit for ourselves in our prayer groups, God can restore all the gifts to us with the power we once knew. But God expects us to step out and start trading with them, trading our willingness to look foolish, for the healing and salvation of Wales.

(At this point I told a story about how I came to give this talk last year in its final format – I was in two minds whether to include the section on healing, but the healing miracles of Jesus were such a core part of the Gospels I felt I had to include them in any talk on the Basic Gospel Message, even though the Bishops’ brief was to focus on John 3:16. At last year’s New Wine Conference, I was called out in a prophecy workshop and was given the message – by someone who knew nothing of my dilemma about how to focus my talk – that God was saying “stand up in front of bishops and say what you know to be right”.)

Would you like to see people in your town healed by Jesus?

If they just woke up healed one morning, would they know it was Jesus who had done it?

If a Christian prayed with them for healing and it happened, would they know it was Jesus who had done it?

Ah… so which Christians in your town would be the people doing that?

How do you know if you’ve got a gift of healing or not?

Well, you could try praying with a few willing people and seeing if they get healed.

It might not work. Don’t panic! A pastor called John Wimber reached the same conclusion, that faithfulness to God required us to pray for people to be healed. He spent 6 months praying for healing at the end of all his Sunday church services, with no success. Then he got one. Then the floodgates opened! His faithfulness led to the founding of the Vineyard churches in 1982.

We are not only called to bring healing, but to bring the prophetic word.

Would you like to see people in your town receive a word from God which builds them up and restores their faith? Yes?

Who is going to speak that word to them?

Andy can’t do it – he’s in Cornwall.

Derek can’t do it – he’s in Lincoln.

What about you?

Don’t you know that Scripture says that you should “eagerly desire the gift of prophecy”?

Don’t you wake up every morning, bounce out of bed, and pray: “Lord, I’m desperate that you should give me a word today so I can bless someone else?” Don’t you? So you aren’t eagerly desiring the gift of prophecy. Hmmm… room for deeper conversion.

Two years ago, I spoke to about 200 members of the Monaghan County Prayer Group gathered at Knock. On the last day I challenged them to be open to God’s prophetic word, and asked them to pair up and pray silently for two minutes, asking God to show them what to pray for, for their random partner. Then they were asked to share with their partner what they had prayed about. At least half the people present felt God had inspired a very relevant prayer!

In preparing for this conference, our leaders have received Words were given for Wales. There are too many to read out here and now, but they accord with words that Anglican and independent Church leaders in Wales have received recently. And did you know that a charismatic church in Llanelli has just completed 7 years of prayer that God would unblock the wellsprings in Wales so the nation can experience a new outpouring?

If you have the gift of tongues, you have a duty to use it to build up worship.

If you have any prophetic gift, you have a duty to use it to bless your parish and your neighbour.

If you have any gift of healings, likewise.

Friends, the age of prayer groups is over. The age of support cells for people ministering to the lost sheep of Wales is just beginning. Today we celebrate how God blessed Celtic nations in the past with island monasteries, centres of holiness and learning. Tomorrow we must return home willing to bear God’s gifts to the streets and villages where we live.

I can’t tell you how God is going to use you. Two things I do know – that “Jesus heals today” is the most powerful part of our Gospel message, and that we are eagerly to desire the gift of prophecy. We are not worthy of the Spirit’s gifts – that’s what makes them gifts. It is because we are ordinary people, weak in the eyes of the world, that we in Wales can be used by God to bless the three million people who dwell in Wales today. We must become, for Wales, the missionaries of the Holy Spirit. Today, the Lord is going to give to you, or restore in you, many gifts which he can use to bring Revival to Wales. Make no mistake – the stakes are high! Choose to make good use of these gifts, use them to bless others, and God will say to you, “Come and share in your master’s happiness!”. You will shine in the world like bright stars because you are offering it the word of life.

Actions Have Consequences

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Twenty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 3 of 4 in our series, The Challenges of Following Jesus.

Actions have consequences.

I think one of the most thankless tasks for civil servants must be running public information campaigns on behalf of the Government.

You know the kind of thing I mean: Know your alcohol limit. Quit smoking. Change4Life – Eat Well, Move More, Live Longer.

We see the posters and the television adverts; they remind us that actions have consequences. Smoking affects first our lungs and then our whole bodies. Too much of the wrong food, or too much alcohol, puts us at higher risk of certain kinds of disease.

We know this already. And yet we don’t want to change our behaviour, because although we know there could be really bad consequences later, we don’t want to give up those simple pleasures right now.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is giving us a similar kind of warning. He is asked whether only a few people will make it to heaven. He replies: “Many will try to enter and not succeed.” Even if we say, “Lord, did we not eat and drink with you?” – and we are here at Mass today in order to eat his body and drink his blood – that on its own does not get us into heaven. So what more is it, that Jesus is asking for?

The Lord calls the entrance into heaven a “narrow gate”. It’s a bit of a squeeze to get through. We won’t make it with any baggage we are carrying.

Is Jesus telling us that God doesn’t love us, that God wants it to be difficult for us to get into heaven? Not at all! But what does it mean to enter heaven? It means to enter the presence of perfect love, the kind of love which keeps hold of nothing for itself but always puts the needs of others first.

The first piece of baggage we need to set down is the rucksack of selfishness. For some of us, our backs are weighed down by all those things we want to keep for ourselves: the money we don’t give to charity; the time we don’t give to our family members; the skills we do not place at the service of the church or the wider community. We must let go of these things, empty out our selfish rucksacks, and live our lives as servants of our neighbours.

But when we live a truly unselfish life, we might feel overwhelmed. Some among us have decided to live an unselfish life, and now feel the whole weight of the world upon their shoulders! What can we do about global warming, about the imbalance of food distribution in the world, about Britain’s stagnant economy, about wars and conflicts in the Middle East and other troubled parts of the world? We fall into the trap of hearing the command to “love” and taking on the whole hurting world – and it is too much of a burden to bear! We cannot enter heaven by trying to be the Saviour of the World – that job is taken already! To those of us trying to be the next Messiah, Jesus says: “Take the weight of the world off your shoulders, hand it to me, and rest a while!”

There is one more obstacle to passing the narrow gate to heaven. Many of us carry the riot shield of reticence, of reluctance to stand up for our faith. Yes, we are Catholics, but we do not speak willingly about our faith or our values. Perhaps we are embarrassed about some of the public failings of our church. Perhaps we struggle to find the right words to speak about our faith in ways others can understand. Or maybe we have been mocked or ridiculed for our faith and made a quiet, inner decision to protect ourselves by not discussing it in public. On the inside of our shield is written, where only we can see it, “I believe in Jesus!” But on the outside is written “Your religious views will not disturb me.” The world reads this, and moves on with its atheism or incomplete religions unchallenged.

Friends, there is a very special responsibility on us, because we are people who attend Mass regularly and hear the Word of God proclaimed in this church every Sunday. Unlike the majority of the world’s population – who are not even Christians – and unlike the majority of Britain today – we are willing to do something for God. We are willing to come to Mass. We are doing one of the things Jesus asked of us – “Do this in memory of me.” So far so good! Yet how is it possible that Jesus can say “I do not know where you come from?” It is not enough for us to eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ – we must also devour his Word and allow that to become flesh within us. When we don’t understand a person, we might say, “I don’t know where you’re coming from.” If we do understand the message of Jesus and take to heart, we will come from a place of understanding his teaching: “I will love God with all my heart. I will love my neighbour as myself. I will go and make disciples of all nations.”

Now for the good news. We are not locked out yet! We’re being warned that an hour will come “when the master of the house has got up and locked the door,” but this has not happened yet. Jesus is merely warning us that if we try to enter heaven clinging to our precious possessions, or bearing too much of the weight of the world, or holding before us a shield which hides our own faith, there will be tragic consequences. But it is not too late to change!

Yes, it is difficult following the teaching of Jesus. Today’s second reading acknowledges that the training God offers us is painful. Yes, those who have never heard the Gospel might get into heaven anyway – the first reading paints a picture of people from foreign lands being gathered into God’s Kingdom. But for us who know more, God expects more. God expects that we will choose to love others and overcome our own selfishness. God expects that we will live lives of prayer and do good not on our own , but in partnership with Jesus Christ. God expects that we will hand over to him the riot shield of reticence; but he will turn it around, reshape it. The shield which fits through the gate of heaven is the shield of faith. On the outside, for the world to see, is written  “I believe in Jesus!” On the inside, where only we can see it, is written “Your religious views will not disturb me.”

Will we change? When the Government campaigns, a few people will quit smoking, cut down their drinking, and change their diet. When the word of God is preached, it never returns to God empty-handed. Actions have consequences. The baggage we choose to set down today will free us to enter heaven tomorrow!

Are you a troublemaker? And if not, why not?

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 2 of 4 in our series, The Challenges of Following Jesus.

Are you a troublemaker? And if not, why not?

Well… aren’t we Christians supposed to be nice? We help people. We turn the other cheek when people offend us. If politicians pass laws we don’t like, or a producer puts on a play mocking Our Lord, wouldn’t we be tolerant and say “God forgives, why cause trouble?”

And yet… we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. We call them saints.

Top: St Thomas More, Shahbaz Bhatti; Bottom: Esther; Venerable Margaret Sinclair

To be sure, some were recognised as saints because of the depth of their prayer-life.

Many were martyred for simply admitting they believed in Jesus.

Others founded religious orders to help people who were sick or in need of education.

But then… there are the troublemakers!

In our First Reading, the Prophet Jeremiah had been thrown into a pit for preaching God’s word.

We also find, in the Old Testament, the story of Esther. She was the one who, when the Prime Minister got permission to massacre Jews, spoke up to the King and said: “excuse me, why are you allowing the persecution of my people?”

St John the Baptist preached about many moral issues, but was executed because he said to the King: “It is against God’s law for you to marry your brother’s wife.”

St Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury because he irritated Henry II to the extent that the King muttered “who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”

St Catherine of Siena had the courage to tell the Pope to go back to Rome at the time when the Popes had taken refuge in France, at Avignon.

St Thomas More refused to accept King Henry VIII’s wishes above God’s law, and was beheaded.

Venerable Margaret Sinclair left school, aged 14, to work in a French polisher’s in Edinburgh. When the Duke of York visited, workers were docked a penny to pay for a new pavement. As trade union rep, Margaret led the protest – why does a duke deserve a pavement if the workers don’t? Aged 23, she entered a convent, caught tuberculosis, and died two years later.

Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg died in 1943 while being transported to Dachau after organising protests outside concentration camps and speaking against anti-Semitism.

Blessed Bishop Vilmos Apor of Hungary opened his bishop’s residence as a centre for refugees when Russian soldiers invaded. He was shot on Good Friday 1945 while pleading with drunken Russian soldiers not to take some of the women refugees for their own purposes.

Mr Shahbaz Bhatti was the only Christian member of the cabinet of Pakistan when he was assassinated in March 2011 for criticising his country’s Islamic blasphemy laws. A year later, hundreds of Catholics across Pakistan marked the anniversary by holding rallies and calling for Bhatti to be recognised as a saint.

These witnesses show us what it can mean to be faithful to the teaching of Jesus.

Pope Francis, preaching in May this year, noted that everyone who follows Jesus will enjoy many good things but will also face persecution. Like Jesus, our only road to holiness leads to the Cross. The Pope warned that “when a Christian has no difficulties in life – when everything is fine, everything is beautiful – something is wrong.” If we have truly encountered Jesus, something “goes deep within and changes us. And the spirit of the world does not tolerate it, will not tolerate it, and therefore, there is persecution.”

“Think of Mother Teresa”, said Pope Francis. “What does the spirit of the world say of Mother Teresa? ‘Ah, Blessed Teresa is a beautiful woman, she did a lot of good things for others …’. The spirit of the world never says that the Blessed Teresa spent, every day, many hours, in adoration … Never! It reduces Christian activity to doing social good.”

In this way, our Pope reminds us that what the world admires about saints is not what we should admire most about saints. The world notices their good works. We are called to recognise their dedication to God and their willingness to carry the Cross.

If we wish to become saints, our first calling is not to imitate their works, but to ask God to inspire us with the same Holy Spirit which inspired them. The gifts promised to us when we were confirmed – among them wisdom, understanding, courage, and respect for God – are offered to us precisely so that we can become God’s troublemakers in this world. Because we are baptised, we share in the work of Christ the Prophet, the one who speaks out about what is wrong in the world around us, even when that offends our family members or friends.

Our Lord himself warns us that his message will result in division, turning family members against each other. Does Jesus want to destroy families? Absolutely not! Yet, it can happen that one member of a family “catches fire” with faith, while another does not. In my own family, I chose to become a Catholic, and then a priest, even though my parents had grave reservations. Fortunately, they have now come to terms with my decision – but I would have become a priest whatever the consequences, because I had already made a decision, in my heart, to do whatever God asked of me, whatever the price might be.

Since I announced the news that I was to move parish, a few of you have commented that my preaching duing my time with you has been “challenging”. Yes, I will plead guilty to that. I always try to follow one simple rule. I aim for the sermons that pass my lips to never be more challenging than the teaching of Jesus himself. It is in this spirit in which I ask you to reflect on today’s Gospel and ask yourself: “Am I a troublemaker?” If you’re not, don’t worry, it’s never too late to begin!

Pictured, clockwise from top left: St Thomas More (statue at Chelsea Embankment, London – author’s own photo); Shahbaz Bhatti (from Wikipedia, under Fair Use provisions); Venerable Margaret Sinclair (Catholic Online); Queen Esther (Sweet Media, licensed CC-BY-SA-3.0)

Call Your Mother

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 2013.

Do you remember those BT telephone adverts where Maureen Lipman played a Jewish mother? In the most famous one, she was delighted her grandson had got an “ology” – that made him a scientist! In another advert, she was griping to the world in general that her son never got round to picking up the phone and calling her… until he did; and then she griped that he never visited!

When we hear reports of the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing in various places around the world, we might be tempted to think that she is also the kind of Jewish mother who will never be satisfied. At Lourdes, it’s “Please come here on pilgrimage.” At Fatima, it’s “Please pray the rosary every day!” If there’s truth in some of the reports of places where the Church has not yet authenticated her coming, her message is “Please pray a great deal each day, and fast twice a week.” Why does our Blessed Mother need all this attention?

Today’s celebration is given so that we may understand who Mary really is. At the end of her earthly life, Mary’s body was taken up into heaven. Her body was the Ark of the New Covenant, the vessel in which God’s presence, in the Person of Jesus, had entered our world. It was right and fitting that this holy Ark be taken up into God’s heavenly Temple.

This means that Mary is now, what each one of us shall be in the future – if only we stay faithful to God and become part of the new heaven and new earth which God has prepared for the end of time. (The Bible speaks of this as “perishable nature… putting on imperishability”.) Blessed Mary has no insecurities, no “need to be needed”. She already enjoys the nearness of God, who is love, and she can no longer be tempted to sin or self-doubt. Nothing that we do on earth can harm or injure her… except for those times when we injure ourselves through sin.

Because our Blessed Mother’s Heart is pure and immaculate, she loves the human race with a perfect love; so whenever human beings reject Blessed Mary, or Her Divine Son, we wound her heart with our hatred or indifference.

It was for this reason that Our Lady came in 1917 in Fatima, Portugal, to invite us to pray the Rosary every day. When we pray the rosary, we offer dozens of Hail Marys, in which we invite Mary to pray for “us sinners” – that is, for ourselves, and all the sinners in the human race – and declare her “blessed among women”, fulfilling her great prophecy in the Magnificat that “all generations will call me blessed”!

But at Fatima, Mary asked for something more – that we dedicate each decade of our rosaries as a prayer for the conversion and salvation of the human race. She invited us to pray, after each deacade, the words: “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those who are most in need of your mercy.”

If Mary invites us to pray the rosary daily, it is not because she needs the affirmation, nor because the gates of heaven would be closed to us, who love Jesus, if we did not do so; rather, it is because she is inviting us to become part of her network of prayer, holding before God all the children which Our Lord placed under her care with his dying breath upon the Cross. This is our privilege; and when we do reach the gates of heaven, we will experience great joy for each and every rosary and invocation of Our Lady which we uttered during this earthly life.

I doubt that they make adverts in heaven, but I can just imagine Our Blessed Mother standing in the courtroom of heaven, speaking with Our Lord and the angels about her children on Earth. Of this I am sure; that she will not be complaining about the children who aren’t calling her, but will be pointing out all those who have faithfully prayed their rosaries and invoked her prayers. “For their sake, My Son, send your angels to protect the Earth, so that hearts may be converted and peace may be restored.”

To be a client of Mary, to be someone who invokes her prayers, is a great privilege which God offers to members of His family. That Mary keeps inviting us to join in this task means that its fruits, when done well, will be tremendous. So not for guilt, not for obligation, but as an act of pure love: Call your mother! She’s waiting to hear from you!

In pink lettering, on black, the words CALL YOUR MOTHER, a telephone and a rosary.

Faith in the Future

A gateway looking through the wall of Scarborough Castle onto the seaHomily at St John Lloyd, for The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 1 of 4 in our new series, The Challenges of Following Jesus.

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

When I was a pupil at comprehensive school in Llanelli, our Deputy Head often read those words, at Christmastime or at the end of the school year. And in a primary school where I used to work, the last day of term was often marked by a rousing song with the refrain “I can do anything I choose!” These are stirring words, and the poem and the song both bring us a feel-good factor for an uncertain time in our life. It’s good to have hope.

Our Christian hope is based on more than mere sentiment or optimism. We do not read cheerful words to create hope where none is warranted. Rather, in our worship we remind ourselves that our God is a faithful God, a God who has kept His promises, and will keep His promises. Our rather mysterious first reading was referring to the way God kept his promise to make Israel a great nation by liberating the Hebrew people from Egypt on the night when the first born males of the Egyptians died, though the houses which had sacrificed a lamb were spared. Over the last couple of weeks, the readings at weekday Mass have recalled the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert, as they doubted whether God was ever going to bring them to the Promised Land. Indeed, the Bible is full of many journeys into the unknown, from the calling of Abraham to St Paul’s journey, as a prisoner, to Rome. These stories are to strengthen each one of us as God leads us on our personal journey from the unchangeable past into the unknown future.

It is not easy, being a friend of Jesus. He allows his friends to be tested, and tested sorely. The apostles had to pass through the pain of Good Friday and the agonising loneliness of Holy Saturday before they could experience the unending joy of the Resurrection. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we recall both the triumph and the tragedy of the Easter story.

There was a time, in the history of this parish, when St John Lloyd was without a Parish Priest for several months. It must have been a difficult time, because the anguish is clear in the voices of those among you who have told me about it. I wonder what would happen if this parish again found itself without a resident parish priest? The temptation would be to throw a pity-party, to despair, to doubt that God or the Church cares about this part of Cardiff. But that would be a tragic mistake! To be sure, when there is no Parish Priest, something significant is missing. But why focus on the one gift which is absent, rather than the many gifts which are present?

Imagine there were no parish priest here. But God has not changed! He is, and always will be, the God who allows his friends to be tested and brings them out of darkness and into light. If you have faith in God – the God who has always rescued his people from dark times – then you will not be alone. Did you know that in the year 1587, priests were expelled from Japan, but lay leaders kept the Catholic Church alive, underground, for nearly 250 years? Without priests, they could have baptisms and marriages, but no other sacraments. In 1865, a French priest was permitted to build a church near Nagasaki; suddenly, a group of visitors approached and asked if it was true that he was single, sent from a place called Rome, and that the church contained a statue of the Virgin Mary. In this way, the hidden Catholics were reunited with the wider Church; Pope Pius IX called this a miracle! For those hidden Christians, who had been keeping watch for several generations, the Master had returned!

Imagine there were no parish priest here. But the official presence of the Church would still be close at hand, in the form of our local deacon, and of the priests in nearby parishes, who would still lend assistance. And indeed the Church is present wherever Christians meet together to pray and to do God’s work. When two members of the SVP visit a person at home, the Church is present. When members of the congregation pray Morning Prayer together, even if neither Deacon Rigo not myself are here, the Church is present. When our First Communion Catechists gather with our children, the Church is present. If you have faith in one another, you will keep the community together and continue to make the Church present.

Imagine that, for a time, there were no parish priest here. When one was appointed, what would he find? A community dejected and mournful, or a confident community ready to present the works they have been preparing for him? I have known of priests who have been disappointed to arrive in their new parish to discover no food in the cupboard, no furniture in the bedroom, no set of keys for their duties and no Christian work taking place in the community. But I tell you this, if a priest were to arrive and to be presented with a warm welcome, a group of candidates well-prepared for the sacraments, and all of the material needs on hand, then surely he would put on his apron, wait upon your needs, and become your friend for life. On the day I moved in, the parish turned out in force to help move my boxes, and for that welcome, St John Lloyd is second to none!

Today’s Gospel is first and foremost about the coming of Christ – the Second Coming at the end of time, or the personal Coming when our earthly lives reach their end. It asks us whether the Lord will find us living out our Christian values of faith, hope and love throughout our lives, even when we are tired. Let’s recognise that it’s not easy, being a follower of Jesus. It’s not meant to be. Jesus embraced his Cross and warned us that we would each have to carry our own Cross. Over the next three Sundays, Jesus will be teaching us something about the price we will pay for choosing to follow him.

We will choose the path of humility, or else we will be humbled.

We will set down our baggage, or else find that we cannot carry it with us through the narrow gate of heaven.

We will choose to follow Jesus when this does not make us popular with friends and colleagues who do not share our faith, or else we will please our friends at the expense of God.

Today’s Gospel can also apply to any wilderness experience when being a faithful Catholic seems hard, and the presence of God, in the form of Christian friends or of the institutional church, seems far away. So if in your life now, or in the future, the presence of God feels far away, remember these words:

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”

And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

So I went forth, and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night. And He led me towards the hills and the breaking of day in the lone East.

Legacy Issues – What You Leave Behind

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Eighteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

Episode 4 of 4 in our current series, The Teachings of Jesus.

“Legacy! Legacy!” says the politician. It’s all about legacy!

Here we are, a year on from the 2012 Olympic Games, and everyone in the media seems to be talking about the Olympic Legacy. The games were meant to achieve so much – to give a boost to our economy and tourist trade, to get more people involved in sport, to make world-class buildings available to a deprived area of London… what we built were not bigger barns but better stadiums, and now the wrangling continues about who gets the benefit, and how much the taxpayer has had to subsidise commercial interests.

According to Ecclesiastes, the Old Testament preacher, it’s a terrible thing to work hard and have someone else enjoy the benefits. That’s called vanity.

According to our modern politicians, it’s a wonderful thing to work hard and have someone else enjoy the benefits. That’s called legacy.

But behind the rosy glow of “legacy” we might yet see the darker side of the human heart at work.

What motivates the politician who wants to leave a legacy?

Could it be a desire for prestige, for having achieved a landmark project?

Could it be sheer pragmatism – “We can’t afford all this healthcare, so we need to encourage our population to get fit?”

Could it be a genuine care and concern to make the community a better place? Yes, it could – for we must resist cynicism and find goodness even in the hearts of our politicians; but we recognise that few hearts act from pure motives and in every heart, we will find caring and kudos in competition.

Not all of us are Politicians with a capital P, but each one of us lives among other human beings, with a natural concern about what others might think of us. The way we use our wealth communicates something to those around us. The man in today’s parable did not need to build bigger barns to secure himself and his family; rather, it was an act of pride, “Look at how successful I am!”

He was trying to impress his neighbours; he failed to impress God.

If we wish to impress God, St Paul offers us a hard recipe: kill everything within ourselves that falls short of God’s standards. We are to put an end to lying – which is the desire for a reputation we have not earned; we are to put an end to greed – which tempts us to consume more than is good for our bodies and souls; and we are to put an end to indulging any desires for sexual relationships other than with the husband or wife to whom God has called us in holy matrimony.

The testimony of an ordinary saint – an everyday saint like you or me – therefore, runs something like this:

I spoke the truth, even when it did not paint me in the best light.

I chose to live simply and consume no more than is good for me. (I have to admit – I’m still working hard on this one. So no chocolate for Christmas this year, please!)

I asked God to show me the husband or wife I should wed, I waited until God blessed our relationship, and I have been faithful ever since.

A further hallmark of an everyday saint is that they see the good things of the world as a gift, not as a right. Jesus is most unimpressed at the heart of the man who considers himself entitled to a share of his brother’s inheritance. So many families in our society are torn apart by dashed expectations of inheritance! Only a humble attitude can preserve the peace!

If that man had said: “My brother’s inheritance is an undeserved gift, and I have no right to any of it,” peace would have been prevailed. And if this was important in the Lord’s day, it is even more important in today’s economy when senior citizens spend their golden years SKI-ing – that is, “Spending the Kids’ Inheritance” – or are forced to convert the value of their home into the cost of care.

Those who have little, impress God by treating what they do receive as a generous and undeserved gift. Grown-up children who expect nothing from their parents can never be disappointed, only delighted.

Those who have much, impress God by giving generously of what they have received. Parents with the ability to do so should give fairly to their children, but remember also the needs of the poor.

Over the last four weeks, we have examined some of the most challenging teachings given to us by Our Lord. The Gospels we hear at Mass, and the sermons proclaimed, are only of value to us if we take these teachings on board and change our lives accordingly.

We have been challenged to love our enemies. Have we prayed for them and reconciled with them?

We have been challenged to spend time listening to Jesus. Have we set aside a daily or weekly slot to open the Bible or practice silent meditation?

We have been challenged to be persistent in prayer. Do we have a strong sense of what we need from the Lord, and a determination to pray until we receive it?

And today, we have been challenged to use our wealth in a way which impresses heaven above us rather than the world around us. What changes do we need to make in our lives accordingly?

“Legacy! Legacy! It’s all about legacy!”

The legacy I would like to leave is this: “He reminded his people of the difficult teachings which Jesus gave us, so we could all become saints. Slowly the people of the parish took these difficult teachings on board. When they saw a part of their life in which change was needed, they went to confession, and so obtained God’s special help to live their life in a new and better way. And by taking small steps towards becoming saints, the people of St John Lloyd shone with the image of Jesus living within them, transformed the world around them, and made themselves rich in the sight of God.”

We can do this! So let the favour of the Lord be upon us: give success to the work of our hands!