Heaven on Earth

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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.”