Letting Go

Homily at St Philip Evans, at the annual Mass for those recently bereaved in the parish

For each one of us who has had an experience of bereavement, “is” gives way to “was”.The Lord, in gold, reaches down to a soul, in bronze, on a violet background.

“John was my husband…”, “Mary was my wife…”

At first these words seem abhorrent, then necessary, then normal. It is not dishonourable for us who remain to speak of them in the past tense; it is a necessary step in coming to terms with the fact that they have gone before us, and we remain behind.

I have only recently arrived in this parish, so others have conducted the funerals of the last year. Let me therefore, add my condolences to the care you have already received. We all grieve at our own pace, as we go through the pain of “is” becoming “was”, so we may find a need to be supported in a special way a month to a year after we have lost someone we love. This parish has a bereavement support group; I take this opportunity to thank them for arranging this evening’s mass and to remind you that they are available to support you, if only you tell them of your need.

But now, let our thoughts turn to those souls who have passed from “is” to “was”.

In that dark valley, where we can no longer see them, God is with them. For God, who is Lord of all time, there is no “was”. All who have lived are alive in his sight, even if they seem to be, as the prophet Daniel was told, sleeping.

We take hope in the words of Jesus that he has gone to prepare a place. Perhaps that place is a sleeping chamber, but it is still a place for our loved ones to be. It is truly a place of rest; this is why the catholic faithful pray for eternal rest. But sleep ultimately gives way to wakefulness….

We take hope in the words of St Paul, that a day of ressurrection is coming, when mortality will be clothed in immortality. All who have lived will live again. Was will be swallowed up by is; this is our christian hope of what shall be.

May the Lord who was, and who is, and who is to come, have mercy on the souls of all our loved ones. Let the perpetual light of God’s mercy shine upon them. May they rest in peace.

Looking back on the Year of Faith

Official logo for the Year of Faith - a stylized ship with the letters IHS (Jesus) as the sail surrounded by a Eucharistic circleAs the Year of Faith closes on the Feast of Christ the King 2013, I am making available here links to some talks I have given to mark the Year of Faith. They were first given at St John Lloyd Parish intended for an audience of practicing Catholics, then some of the talks were slightly adapted to be more accessible to an audience including non-Catholics and given again at the Cornerstone at St David’s.

The links here are for narrated Powerpoints of the St John Lloyd versions of the talks.

We Believe in a God who Speaks, covering the Bible, Tradition and private revelation.

We believe in Faith and in Sciencefrom my perspective as a Catholic Priest with a PhD in astrophysics.

We believe in the Virgin Mothercovering the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth and Assumption of Our Lady.

We Believe in One Church of Christ, covering the relationship between the Catholic Church and other Christian communities.

We Believe in One Catholic and Apostolic Church, on the role of St Peter and the Apostles and how this led to the modern leadership of the Catholic Church.

We Believe in a Suffering Saviour, on whether God can suffer and if so, how this should affect our way of praying.

We Believe in the Holy Spirit, on how we know there is a Holy Spirit, why we celebrate Confirmation, and how we can develop a prayerful relationship with the Spirit of God.

We Believe in the Blessed Sacrament, on why we claim that bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, and how worship of Jesus in the form of the Blessed Sacrament has developed in the Catholic Church over the centuries.

We Believe in a God Who Heals, looking at the phenomenon of healing in the Christian Church historically and today.

Sire, what are your orders?

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the Solemnity of Christ the King, Year C – National Youth Sunday.

Sire, what are your orders?

If you watch movies regularly, you’ll be familiar with the kind of plot where the hero has just become the leader of a nation. Perhaps he has slain the villainous tyrant in a climactic battle. Or perhaps the President has been assassinated and the hero finds himself next in the line of succession. Either way, Hollywood underlines the hero’s new status by sending in someone to ask: “Sire – or sir – what are your orders?”

We can imagine something similar happening in the days of King David. David had been the successful commander of Saul’s army. But now both King Saul and the heir-apparent, Jonathan, have been slain. Rather than turn to Saul’s wider family, the people acclaim David as King. Surely some court official would have soon stepped forward to ask: “Sire, what are your orders?”

At first sight, the story of Jesus dying on the Cross seems very different from the triumph of King David. If Jesus had spoken but one word of command, a legion of angels would have lifted him off the Cross and raised him high above the waiting crowds. But Our Lord Jesus was not there to do battle with the Roman Army or the Jewish leaders. His battle was with Death itself, and to meet Death he first had to die. Jesus faced Death and overpowered our final enemy!

This too is a story which is told often enough. This weekend the BBC is marking 50 years of Doctor Who: the Doctor has sacrificed his life for others on numerous occasions but has the power to keep coming back. For J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter was the boy who lived, magically protected by a mother’s love from what should have been a fatal curse. Those are fascinating stories – but they are only stories. Ours is the Greatest Story Ever Told!

Ours is no mere fiction, but a story which climaxes on a day in human history when the Risen Jesus appeared to his disciples. They bow down and worship him. By their actions, they ask: “Sire, what are your orders?” – and Jesus gives clear instructions. “Go and make disciples of all nations. Baptise them and teach them to follow everything I have taught you. Trust that I will be with you always, even to the ends of the earth.” Leaving us with those words, Christ Our King went to sit on his throne, which is in heaven.

As soon as the new ruler has been acclaimed by the people, Hollywood likes to show us the last faithful servant of the old regime. Perhaps it was the henchman to the old tyrant, or the special adviser to the last president. This bit keeps us guessing, because you never know how the old retainer will react.

Will she leap forward and attack the new ruler, only to be slain in a final skirmish?

Will she jump through a window and run away? Cue a scene in the middle of the final credits where some comical fate awaits her in her life of exile!

Or will she bow the knee to the new ruler and become a faithful servanJesus on mountain top with disciples, surrounded by words: When the Holy Spirit Comes, You shall be my witnessest of the hero-king?

Once we understand who Jesus truly is, each one of us faces the same decision as that old retainer. For each of us, there was a time when we liked to make our decisions about our life, guided by the things we thought were important – sport stars, fashion idols, the tastes of our romantic partners…

But when we reach the point of knowing that Christ wants to be our King, we will find that his values are different from ours.

There are the decrees that the King issues for everyone. We must make peace with our enemies. We must go the extra mile to serve those in need. We must keep our promises. We must attend the Lord’s Supper on the Lord’s Day to remember how he offered up his life for us. We must confess our sins when we fail.

Those laws are for everyone. But because the King knows each of his servants, there are special tasks he may have for us personally. We know this in the part of Christ’s Kingdom which is St Philip Evans Parish, because we have a longstanding custom here: in our Mass each weekend we pray: “Here I am Lord, use me as you will.”

If we are serious about praying those words in church, there are other words each one of us must pray when we get home: “Sire, what are your orders?”

Have you asked Jesus, in your personal prayers, what he would like you to do in your family life, in your workplace, and in this parish? For instance, in this parish, I have invited members of the congregation to form part of a Vision Group. Have you asked Christ Our King whether he would like you to volunteer for that? At the present time, we do not have catechists in this parish to work with parents presenting children for baptism, or to run children’s liturgy during Mass. Have you asked Christ Your King if it his is will for you to volunteer for any of these things?

Deep down, you may already have a sense of what Christ is asking of you. You can argue, or you can run away, but the only happy ending to the story will take place when you bend the knee and say, in your heart, “Lord Jesus, what are you asking of me? I choose you as my King. Sire, what are your orders?”

Then, and only then, can we truly pray every weekend: “Here I am Lord, use me as you will.” Only then can we truly pray, as Jesus taught us: “Thy will be done, thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Heaven on Earth


A reflection for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Last week, I reached my 40th birthday and spent the weekend with friends at the Jesuit Villa in Barmouth, on the west coast of Wales. All the other adults present were married couples, and with them were ten children ranging from 3 months to 14 years. What follows isn’t quite the sermon I preached on Sunday morning (which was very personal) but does cover much of the same ground.

Last night, many of my guests shared deeply about their experience of married life. I find myself in a tricky position – as priest and pastor, guiding people entering or living out marriage, without myself having the lived experience of being married. For those insights which they have shared with me, both in last night’s conversation and through the lived experience of visiting each of them at home from time to time, I am most grateful.

For many Catholic adults, marriage is the way God has called you to live out your lifetime on earth. It is your true path to holiness. And yet today’s readings point towards a different experience of love which awaits us when we reach heaven. There, Christian souls are not married, and do not marry. All the love we could possibly need, we will receive from God in person, and from the members of the Body of Christ who accompany us. Nothing good will be lost in this – both earthly marriages and friendships will be caught up into heaven. But it will be a new and inclusive way of loving, in which your own children become your brothers and sisters in Christ, and which includes the millions of saints we haven’t yet met, rather than the exclusive partnership of two souls.

We can all start a relationship with God on earth – it’s called prayer. I didn’t tell Pope Francis what I was doing this month, but a few weeks ago he obligingly preached about the importance of families praying together. My friends, who know me well, know that I am highly organised and sometimes take things to levels of organisation or commitment that most people wouldn’t. For me, it’s a way of showing – to friends or parish – that I care. But as a preacher I need to set realistic challenges for others. I have seen with my own eyes over the last 48 hours just how challenging it is to assemble a group of children of diverse ages in the chapel and keep their attention, even for a short prayer time. (My sermon at the Saturday Mass took some unexpected turns when the children threw in some hard questions, including “Why do you kiss the altar?” and “Why go to church?”) Thanks to different examples prepared by my guests this weekend, I have a better idea of what family prayer in practice might look like when led by committed Catholic parents. I think Pope Francis also understands – his lofty ambition was that families might just about manage an Our Father around the dinner table or – whisper it softly – a rosary!

On earth, priests in the Western world are called to be celibate as a sign of the life of heaven which awaits us. I am called to be a living example of the fact that the most important relationship in our lives – if it isn’t already – is going to become the one with God. I have promised not to take a wife, so that prayer, and the needs of my parish, can come first.

I don’t think it’s easy for any priest to live out celibacy. We are trying to live as if we were already in heaven, without the full joy of heaven to sustain us. Sometimes the people around us – be they parishioners, family members, or friends – are a wonderful support, but at other times, any priest might find himself in a rather lonely place. After all, the people we rely on are not saints yet, and neither are we.

The priestly lifestyle means much more than not taking a wife – it means limited availability for friendship. Most weekends and most evening I am busy about the work of the church – the impossible task of loving the 300 regular worshippers, 450 primary school pupils and their families, and the many more resting Catholics living within the boundaries of my parish. Friends who have tried to ring me know how difficult it is to catch me both in, and free to talk!

Each of you will have two kinds of priests in your life – the one who serves the parish where you live or choose to worship on Sundays, and other priests you know as friends or co-workers on church projects. Any committed priest has very limited opportunities to make new friends outside the context of his parish. With parishioners he can be friendly, but cautious about becoming a friend rather than a professional. So first, do support and affirm your parish priest, but be understanding when he feels he needs to set some boundary – to not share too deeply or visit too often, if that is his way of balancing friendship with his role as parish priest.

As for any other priest you know and work with – you are the closest thing he will ever have to a life-partner; someone who believes in what he is doing, someone who cares about his well-being, someone with whom he can let his guard down and share freely. Your priest-friend will be a frustrating kind of friend to have – difficult to catch on the phone, always having to work his social life around his primary commitment to parish and other assigned ministries. But persevere! True love is patient, kind, hopes, endures, and bears no record of wrong!

Pope Francis spoke of two other things in his sermon – joy, and evengelisation. “True joy comes from a profound harmony between persons, something which we all feel in our hearts and which makes us experience the beauty of togetherness, of mutual support along life’s journey. But the basis of this feeling of deep joy is the presence of God, the presence of God in the family and his love, which is welcoming, merciful, and respectful towards all.” I have tasted something of that joy this past weekend, creating a little portion of almost-heaven, with time to slow down and enjoy the refreshing company of old friends and new.

Finally, evangelisation. Pope Francis urged families to share faith by their way of living – that would be a whole other sermon, especially reflecting on how the culture of Wales and of England is moving further and further from our Catholic values! But perhaps in St Paul’s words today you can hear an appeal from the priests of the world to their true friends: “Finally, my sisters and brothers, pray for us; pray that the Lord’s message may spread quickly, and be received with honour as it was among you; and pray that we may be preserved from the interference of bigoted and evil people, for faith is not given to everyone.”

In return, I make St Paul’s words to my own to you: “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father who has given us his love and, through his grace, such inexhaustible comfort and such sure hope, comfort you and strengthen you in everything good that you do or say.”

People Matter.

Homily at St Philip Evans, for All Souls’ Day, 2013.
Christ (in gold) reaches down to lift up a soul (bronze, on purple background)

People matter.

The point of this special day in the Church’s calendar is to remind us that people matter.

At the heart of the Bible is the message that God loves human beings, and asks us to share this same love for all humanity.

Today is not about – or at least, not mainly about – remembering our own loved ones. (We have a special day for that in this parish later in November.)

The clue is in the official name of today’s liturgy: The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed.

It’s a commemoration – so it’s about remembering.

It’s about all the Faithful Departed – so we are remembering every soul who has ever lived on earth and is now being purified on the way into God’s perfect kingdom.

Although we call them faithful departed, we are not making a claim about how religious they were in their earthly lifetime. Every soul which passes from this life into God’s hands will accept God’s love immediately, or slowly, or not-at-all. Yesterday we celebrated those who have already accepted that love fully, and become saints. Today we celebrate those souls who, on beholding God, have faith to believe they will enjoy that love as soon as all their brokenness is purified – and it has always been the understanding of the Catholic Church that the prayers of the living can assist in that purification.

People matter. Today is especially about those souls who have no-one to pray for them. As an act of love, the whole church sets apart this one day in the year to remember and offer Mass for them all.

Today might also be a reminder for us that there is some special act of love which we need to show to the living. Is there a word of reconciliation we know we need to say but have been putting off? Is there an act of kindness we could do but which has never made it to the top of our priority list? We have many ways to show love to the living; once a soul has passed into God’s hands, all we can do is pray.

In our bidding prayers in a moment, we will pray by name for those whose funerals were held at or through this church during the last 12 months. Among them will be those who worshipped regularly and those who never worshipped at all; Catholic funeral registers even contain the names of those who were not themselves Catholic but were given a church funeral by loved ones who share our faith.
Those we could never have helped practically in their earthly life, we assist spiritually today. This is a genuine and powerful act of love, and an expression of our faith in eternal life.

People matter. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.