The Pursuit of Prayer

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 6th Sunday of Easter, Year A.Stylised image of kneeling person at prayer.

Today’s Gospel separates the HAVES from the HAVE-NOTs.

Some of us here present today have experienced a deep inner sense of God-the-Father’s loving presence.

Some of us here present today have experienced Jesus being so close to us, that we would readily agree from our own experience that He is in us and we are in him.

Some of us here present today have experienced God’s Spirit of Truth dwelling within us, making sense of what we believe.

If we HAVE experienced any of these things, we will struggle to put the experience into words. We know something happened, but what I have just said might feel like a pale echo of this kind of deep experience.

If we HAVEN’T experienced any of these things, everything I’ve just said might sound a bit airy-fairy. But don’t panic! Jesus was pointing to a day in the future when his hearers would experience these things. For the Apostles, that day was the first Christian Pentecost. For the Samaritans who heard the Gospel from Philip, it happened on the day when the apostles Peter and John blessed them. For those of us who haven’t yet experienced it, we still can – on the day when God grants us that gift.

The funny thing is, if we HAVE experienced such things, we probably don’t talk about it. We might have a thought in the back of our minds that there is such a thing as “spiritual pride”. We shouldn’t make ourselves out to be “holier than other people”. If we have sensed God being close to us in prayer, we daren’t say so! What would people think of us?

Relax! Any deep experience we have in prayer is not a reward for our good behaviour, but a gift from God. It is given because God loves us, not because we deserve it. When the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared at shrines like Lourdes and Fatima, Beauraing and Banneux, it was not because the children there were especially good, but because they had the simplicity to pass on her messages honestly.

When I was a student in seminary, we took part in many kinds of discussion groups. Every weekday morning we had classes where we discussed theology and philosophy. Once a week we had “human development” groups where we were encouraged to share our innermost thoughts to help our psychological development – on pain of strictest confidence. We also met in groups to practice giving sermons and to review the pastoral placements we had been on. The one thing we didn’t have a group for, was talking about what was going on in our personal prayer. What a strange omission for men-of-God in training!

Then one of my classmates arranged to run a short, voluntary course, using video material called Knowing God Better – some of you might have seen it locally. The content was very basic stuff for men doing degree-level theology. Yet the course had a wonderful effect! For the first, and only, time in my seminary experience, men from different year groups started sharing together about their own experience of God’s presence. It helped me to understand better how God speaks to different people in different times and at different ways.

I know an American woman called Sara who became a Catholic a few years ago. She spent a year following the RCIA programme in the parish, and a few weeks into the course, she asked the catechists about what they experienced when they prayed. Sara didn’t get much of an answer, so she assumed the catechists were just being modest. A few weeks later, she tried again, but made no progress. By the end of the course she had made a startling realisation – what she was already experiencing in her own prayer time was a much deeper experience than anything tasted by those who were trying to train her in the art of being a Catholic!

When we are beginners in trying to pray, God offers us many “spiritual sweeties”. We are likely to enjoy the experience of praying. But as we become more mature, we will often find that prayer gets harder. God has taken the sweetie-jar away and is now feeding us with our spiritual “five-a-day” – better for us, but less enjoyable. Eventually, in the darkness and dryness, we might get a glimpse of this wonderful nearness-of-God which today’s Gospel points towards. Some people break through to an even deeper kind of prayer, contemplation, where they can easily “spend time with God”. But may people, even saints, will live out the later years of their life in darkness and dryness with only the occasional consoling glimpse of God’s presence. After Blessed Teresa of Calcutta died, and her diaries were read, many people were shocked to learn how for the second half of her life, she experienced the absence of God. Yet this isn’t unusual as part of spiritual growth.

In two weeks’ time it will be Pentecost. There is a longstanding tradition of preparing for Pentecost by keeping a novena – nine days of prayer asking for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Pope Leo XIII and St John Paul II have affirmed this tradition. There are different kinds of novenas. Some of them pray for the church at large, or use traditional language to pray for the gifts of the Spirit. Today I would like to share a very simple novena which uses everyday language, and which you can use to ask God to draw close to you.

I cannot make any promises about what exactly God will do, or when God will do it. When the Apostle Peter preached to a Roman soldier called Cornelius, the Holy Spirit came into the hearts of everyone in the house even while Peter was still preaching. When Philip the Deacon preached to the Samaritans, their hearts felt hungry for more but the Holy Spirit did not come until Peter and John arrived and blessed them.  Medieval coin with design of dove descending and tongues of fire.It is God who decides when he will change us from being HAVE-NOTS to being HAVES. But I know that Jesus said elsewhere in the Gospel that if we human beings know how to give good things to our children, how much more will God send His Holy Spirit to those who ask!


Homily at St Philip Evans for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year A Vocation Sunday

He calls his sheep one by one. They follow because they know his voice.

In recent years, six young men connected with South Wales have sensed the voice of the Shepherd, asking them to consider being priests for our diocese. They are now at different stages of training in seminary or in parishes. One, Jonathan Stogdon, will soon be spending a year with us at St Philip Evans.

Training a priest is not a quick exercise. I can speak from experience when I say that it is both measured and wide-ranging. The time it takes to train a priest – typically 4 to 6 years – is less about the amount of information to be learned, more about the time needed to form a mature human personality. The classes are small, and the attention is personal. But that doesn’t come cheap. Between the board and lodge, and the salaries of full-time staff and part-time experts, it can cost £20,000 per year, per student, to train a priest.

For several years, Cardiff had no seminarians. Now we have six – but this is an expensive blessing! Today the Archbishop is inviting you to contribute to these training costs through a special collection. [Explain practicalities.]

He calls his sheep one by one. They follow because they know his voice.

In our own parish, we are blessed that many young people have sensed the voice of the Shepherd inviting them to assist at the altar. Of all the parishes I have worked in, none has had as many regular servers as St Philip Evans. Today we enrol some of our servers in the Guild of Saint Stephen, a recognition of their commitment to serve. Also this weekend we award silver medals to two of our servers, Caru King and Cathy MacGillivray, in recognition of 10 years of loyal service.

The strength of our parish depends on what we contribute – as readers, cleaners, helping in ways behind the scenes or more visible. If you wish to be a reader, or an altar server, or serve in any other way, please don’t wait to be asked. It is easy to contact the right person – every week there is a list on the back page of the parish newsletter!

He calls his sheep one by one. They follow because they know his voice.

30 years ago, there was a shepherd who called the people of Llanedeyrn to form a new parish. His name was John Maguire. Some of you here were part of that founding community, meeting in the school hall before this church was built. [Invite show of hands.] Thanks to his work as pastor – which means shepherd – we have both a parish and a church.

A church building is a blessing, a trap, and a big responsibility. It is a blessing because we have our own place to worship and to pray. It is a trap because with a building, we can forget the church is really built of living stones. Jesus said his flock would go in and out; each week we gather and disperse again. It’s what we do together as members of church that makes our community strong. Finally, this church building is a responsibility because like all public buildings, it must be maintained and kept safe and secure – and that doesn’t come cheap.

At the end of today’s Mass, our parish finance officer, Bernie Nolan*, will ask us to consider being involved in running the social life of our parish, and how we contribute to the parish’s running costs. At the moment we are breaking even as a  parish. The student coming to us next year is a blessing – but will also mean that our council tax and household bills will go up. I will ask the diocese to make a contribution from the priest training fund, but we will get a direct benefit from the work of the student, and it is only fair we contribute something as a parish to his keep.

The Good Shepherd calls his sheep one by one. They follow because they know his voice.

Jesus promised us “life to the full”. How do we access that life? First, we take seriously our parish prayer, “Here I am Lord, use me as you will.” If this prayer is merely words that we echo each Sunday, it will not bear fruit. But if we pray it seriously, genuinely asking God what we are to do to serve him, we will begin to sense the call of the shepherd. God’s call may challenge us, but is never beyond what we can achieve, with divine help. It’s only when we accept this challenge that we can know the deep satisfaction, the fullness of life: such fulfilment only comes from knowing that we have generously responded to God’s call to the best of our ability.

The shepherd asks different things of different people – preparing food, erecting gazebos, serving on committees, reading at Mass, serving at the altar, joining a religious order or even devoting one’s entire life to the priesthood. He know best!

He calls his sheep one by one. They follow because they know his voice. What is he asking of you?

* No, she’s not the Bernie Nolan you may be thinking of.