Homily at St Philip Evans, for The 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.
“Go and find those who are lost, and bring them home.”
This parish is your spiritual home, and today, I begin to make it my home.
I’m delighted to begin my time as your parish priest with this Gospel.
What we’ve just heard proclaimed are parables of the Kingdom. That means, it is God speaking to us about the way he wants his friends on earth to live. In God’s Kingdom, we look for those who have lost their way, and bring them home. This isn’t negotiable. This Christian Community – in common with every Catholic parish – is called to reach out to those who have lost contact with Christ and His Church, and assure them that their home is HERE.
Those who are lost are welcome here.
Those who speak Welsh are welcome here.
Those who speak English are welcome here.
Those who use sign language are welcome here.
Those who are not Catholic are welcome here.
Those who struggle with their personal relationships, are welcome here.
Those who welcome others are welcome here.
In today’s second reading, from a letter to St Timothy, we hear St Paul reflecting on how he had once been an enemy of the Church. Now he is a member of the Christian community and a friend to the apostles. Only a community willing to embrace an enemy can achieve this! I wonder how many people back then said “We can’t have Paul – he is a spy, he will betray us!” But Christian good sense prevailed. Those early Christians were true to their calling to transform enemies into their friends.
Today, Home Mission Sunday, the whole Catholic Church across Wales and England is reflecting on how we help the lost and lapsed to find their place at home among us. As my first act of leadership, I declare that we, together, priest, deacon, and people, have a mission: we are to work together to bring the lost sheep of Christ back into the sheepfold of St Philip Evans Parish.
We are to reach the lost.
We are to reach those who once came to Mass, but stopped going.
We are to reach those who feel disappointed by this parish.
We are to reach those who feel disappointed by the Catholic Church as a whole.
And remember – disappointment does not mean the same as blame. We can be disappointed when others let us down – but we can also be disappointed when our own expectations are too high.
When we do reach the lost, what will we do with them?
We will invite them to join with us, to grow and learn as followers and worshippers of Jesus.
We are the Catholic people who serve Llanederyn, Pentwyn and Pontprennau, and those members of the wider community who choose to worship here.
As Catholics, we believe that Jesus did not leave us to work out his teachings alone, but set leaders over his church and promised that the Holy Spirit would guide them through the ages. We believe that this promise means that the Pope, in Rome, is guided by God when he teaches us about God, and about the behaviour which God expects of us.
That doesn’t mean that we have to believe that the Pope, or priests in general, are given any special protection from making unwise practical decisions. As a parish priest, I’ve made a few poor ones myself. The Lord allows us to learn by reflecting on our mistakes – but for the sake of unity in the Church, God asks us to give our leaders the benefit of the doubt as far as possible.
Today, I take up the role of being your new parish priest. I’m not going to use this sermon to introduce myself or tell my full life story – there would be too much to tell. Rather, I am inviting you to come a week Thursday, September 26th, either at 2 pm or after 7 pm Mass, when I’ll give you the story of how I became a Catholic, a doctor of astrophysics, how God led me to be a priest, and some of the more unusual things I’ve done in the course of my ministry. But I am very conscious that I am new to you and you are new to me – it’s going to take a little time for us to get to know each other.
Two things I would like to share with you today: First, that I am the kind of priest who asks questions and consults when possible, but makes executive decisions when necessary. There will be times when it is possible for me to consult widely before I make decisions. I’ll try to do that as much as possible. But there will also be times when an urgent decision is needed, or pressure of time means I can’t consult as widely as I like, and I’d be shirking my responsibility if I didn’t act there and then.
Second, I am not Tony Hodges. I’m not the kind of priest who is going to rush to make changes for the sake of proclaiming “I’m in charge” but some things will be immediately different simply because I am a different person with different gifts. Please give me a chance! When someone new comes along, one or two of us might be tempted to try a different parish, or give church a rest. Please resist that temptation! How can I learn the St Philip Evans way from you, if you are not here to teach me?
Because I need to learn from you, too, I am inviting us to spend a few hours together on the afternoon of Sunday 29th September. We can bring some lunch to share, I will say a little about the different kinds of things we need to do, to be the kind of Church God invites us to be, and then I will give the floor to leaders of the various parish groups so you can show me the ways in which St Philip Evans already carries out the work of Christ.
I know I have much to learn from all of you, but I know we have the same starting point in common. We are the Catholic Church which serves Llanederyn, Pentwyn and Pontprennau, and members of the wider community who choose to worship here. Here, the Eucharist is celebrated by a priest who has received from the successors of the apostles, the power to require bread and wine to become the true Body and Blood of Christ. Here, the message of Jesus, shaped by the successors of Peter, is taught to give life to the world.
You see, I’m excited about being a Catholic. 23 years ago I became a Catholic and made my first communion. About 18 years ago I started going to daily Mass because I knew in my heart that Jesus was calling me to draw closer to Him. I’m looking forward to that wonderful day at the end of my life when I will meet Jesus and hear him say “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Isn’t that a bit presumptuous? Not as long as I follow the Lord’s commands, which are made clear by the Bible and the Church. When I do fail, as long as I make a good confession and try my hardest to avoid falling back into the same behaviour, I need have no fear about meeting God. If God has particular tasks in my life that I am to do, it’s his job to make that clear to me – not mine to agonise about whether I am doing the right thing. Right now, God has made it clear, through Archbishop George, that I am to be the Parish Priest of St Philip Evans, and here I am.
When Benedict XVI became Pope, in his first homily he said: “Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.” I echo those words today – each member of this parish is loved by God, and is needed in order for this parish to be all that God is inviting us to be.
At the end of the today’s Gospel stories, there’s a party. There’s a celebration that the lost sheep and the lost coin are back in their rightful place. But then what happens? If coins and sheep had human feelings, the found one, now just “one of the crowd” might realise they are no longer the special one. The 99 sheep or 9 coins, meanwhile, might feel jealous of the fuss that was made of the lost one in the first place. Within each of us, an anxious voice pipes up: “Do I matter to God?”
Jesus tells these stories so that we know YES, we do matter. Sometimes our needs are greater and God becomes more present to us. But in everyday living, we must remember that we are precious to God at all times. When we need to renew our confidence, we need only say: “The Good Shepherd loves me, and he knows my name.”
The Good Shepherd is Jesus. I stand here on his behalf, but it’s not possible for one man, one priest, to spend quality time with everyone who worships here, and the hundreds of children and parents associated with our schools. I will prioritise spending time with current and future leaders in our community; helping you, who are leaders among us, to support the whole community. This is a shared work – it’s not about building my kingdom, or your kingdom, but building Christ’s Kingdom here at St Philip Evans.
Often enough I have said “we Catholics”. I’m aware that some of us here today might not be Catholic, or might be Catholics who do not come to Holy Communion. If you are here to support a family member or friend who is Catholic, thank you for your commitment. If you are choosing to worship here even though you do not receive Holy Communion, thank you for your faithfulness. If at any time you wish to have a conversation about your situation, my door and my ears are open. And if you have been thinking for a long time about becoming Catholic and wonder how to take the next step, perhaps the RCIA group beginning after Mass this Thursday evening is the right place to explore that. I sometimes meet people who think “The Catholic Church wouldn’t want me to be a member.” You know what? They are always wrong! We’ll take anyone!
In today’s First Reading, we see Moses praying for the Israelites who have not kept God’s law. Moses loves them and wants them restored to friendship with God. Dear members of St Philip Evans, please keep in your prayers those who God will restore to our community, together with those God is inviting to become Catholics for the first time.
Please work with me to help our lapsed and lost re-take their places in this community, by praying for them, by welcoming them, and by being ready to live in peace with all who make their spiritual home here. Please work with me also to re-discover the joy of our Catholic faith, to discover that the teaching of our Church is life-giving even when it is challenging – and for this we may need a deeper appreciation of the difference between church teaching, which will always draw us closer to God, and the way the institutional church has operated in practice, which sometimes needs our forgiveness. Leaders within our community, please work with me and support those you lead with the same prayers and presence with which I will support you.
Last year, when I was sent to St John Lloyd, the Archbishop said it could be a short-term move. This year, he has made appointments as part of a long-term strategy for the city and the whole diocese. I am looking forward to being your parish priest at St Philip Evans for years to come. Much as I will try to learn the “St Philip Evans way”, I am bound to do things slightly differently, because I am a different person. So I ask you to give me a chance.
I’m told there’s a tradition in this parish that when the priest asks the congregation a question, they feel free to answer. So I am going to give it a go.
Will you work with me to help lost Catholics find their way home?
Would you like to discover a new excitement and security about being members of Christ’s Catholic Church?
I will respect the positions of responsibility already entrusted to members of this community. In return, will you bear with me as a I learn how to be your new parish priest?
We are a community loved by God, who has a different purpose for each one of us, and has given us all the gifts and skills we need to do things as individuals and as a parish. Together, let’s be God’s church in this place, at this time. Amen!