Prisoners of Faith

Homily at St Philip Evans for the Solemnity of St Peter and Paul, 2014.

I will probably die in my bed.

Protesters in Chicago, 2008. (Needless to say, this blog profoundly disagrees with the sentiment expressed by the placard!)

Protesters in Chicago, 2008. (Needless to say, this blog profoundly disagrees with the sentiment expressed by the placard!)

My successor will probably die in prison.

The bishop who comes after me will probably be martyred.

Not my words! The words of the Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis George, speaking to a group of priests in 2010.

Today, we celebrate the Apostles Peter and Paul, martyred for following Jesus. But not only martyred – both Peter and Paul were also imprisoned on several occasions. We’ve just heard about St Peter’s miraculous release from prison, and St Paul reflecting on how he had stood firm through many trials – trials which would have included imprisonment. Our own patron Saint, Philip Evans, also spent more than half a year in gaol before he was finally executed.

In our own age, many Catholics have been imprisoned for what they believe.

The last Archbishop of Shanghai spent 20 years in prison as a priest and spent much of his life as a bishop under house arrest, because in China, bishops have no freedom unless they agree to come under the official Government branch of the Church.

A few months ago, three Catholic priests were kidnapped in the Crimea, though they were later released safely.

In the year 2000, Muslim activists in the Philippines kidnapped 29 Catholics from two schools in Basilan province. Two hostages, both teachers, were executed by their captors, and four others, including a priest, died during the rescue operation.

In the same year, 16 Filipinos, including 5 children, were arrested in Saudi Arabia when they were caught holding a Bible study group in a private apartment.

In the last three years, dozens of Catholic worshippers have been killed by bombs planted in churches in Nigeria and Pakistan.

It is not only Catholics who are being attacked. Last September, an attack on an Anglican church in Peshawar, Pakistan, left at least 85 people dead. Pope Francis responded the same week in his Wednesday audience, in these words:

“So many Christians in the world are suffering,” the pope said. “Am I indifferent to that, or does it affect me like it’s a member of the family?”

“Does it touch my heart, or doesn’t it really affect me, [to know that] so many brothers and sisters in the family are giving their lives for Jesus Christ?”

“How many of you pray for Christians who are persecuted?” the pope asked. “Ask yourselves, do I pray for that brother or sister who’s in difficulty for confessing their faith?”

So Pope Francis is calling us to prayer for our persecuted brothers and sisters – but also to examine our own values.

Why is going to Mass so important that Catholics in Pakistan and Nigeria will risk getting blown up every Sunday?

Why is studying the Bible or going to a prayer meeting so important that Christians in Saudi Arabia risk arrest every time they do it?

Why is being loyal to the successor of Peter so important that Catholic leaders in China and the Crimea today, as in Wales at the time of St Philip Evans, risk imprisonment rather than agree to ignore the Pope’s leadership?

The answers to these questions come not from my words in this pulpit, but from the seed of faith which Our Heavenly Father plants in your hearts. In today’s Gospel, He planted in St Peter’s heart the knowledge that Jesus was the Son of the Living God. If you are not certain, cry out to your Heavenly Father: “Remove my doubt! Increase my faith!”

If you know that the things we do as Church are important, but have not given them the priority they deserve, this is an invitation to make a new beginning! Come to weekday Mass once a  week! Come to our Thursday night activities when they begin in September. If you don’t yet come to Mass every weekend, start putting the Lord first on the Lord’s day. Our Father in heaven will be delighted!

I have not yet told you accurately or fully what Cardinal George of Chicago actually said. Here are his exact words:

I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square. His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.

The Cardinal was deliberately being dramatic to make a point. We don’t have to let it get that bad – but if we do nothing, the politicians who oppose religious values will win ground and push us into a corner. We can choose, instead, to begin the rebuilding today, on the firm foundations of St Peter the Rock, and St Paul, teacher of the nations.

Before I finish, a word to the children at Mass this morning – don’t be afraid! Yes, I’ve talked about some scary things which happen to people who go to church in other parts of the world. In Wales, we are safe. Our churches in Wales are not being bombed, and we will not be arrested for saying we want to follow Pope Francis. But it’s important that we stand up for the things we believe in. Jesus promises that he will give his friends special strength when they stand up and do the right thing. Some people in Britain want us to keep our Catholic ideas inside our churches. We need to tell other people that we are Catholics and want what we believe to be respected at school and at work too!

This Is My Body, Given Up For You

Homily for the Vigil Mass of Corpus Christi at the SmartLoving Seminar in Hendon, London, UK.

“This is my body, given up for you.”

Whenever we attend Holy Mass, we hear the priest pronounce these words.

“This is my body, given up for you.”

Today’s readings from Scripture point us to the consequences of what Jesus did at the Last Supper and on the Cross. All of us who receive Holy Communion are connected; we form the Body of Christ, which is the Church. All of us who receive Holy Communion are heirs to the promise of Jesus that doing this will secure for us eternal life. That is, when our bodies die, our souls – the very essence which makes us who we are – will be safe with Jesus in a life which has no end; and we believe that one day God will give us new and everlasting bodies.

But the God who promises us such wonders in the future also leads us through the trials of daily life in the here-and-now, where our bodies are fragile and our toil is real. The first reading reminds us of how God’s chosen people had to spend 40 years travelling through a desert because they refused to follow God’s commands. In the same way, the opening chapters of the Bible tell us that in some mysterious way, there is a link between our unwillingness to listen to God’s commands and the pains of labour – both in the sense of childbearing and of human toil.

In our modern lifestyles, we may not spend 40 years wandering in a desert, but we might well spend 140 minutes each day commuting between home and work. Pope Francis spoke last Tuesday to the priests and people of Rome, acknowledging how so many parents miss out on time with their children because the parent does not make it home until the child’s bedtime. (On Thursday evening, I myself was cooking supper for my godson and his sister and brothers, because neither of their parents would be home from work before 8 pm.) The Pope has no easy answers to the trials of 21st Century living, but he does offer us some directions: when grandparents can be part of the home life, this is good. When the Church community can be a place of hospitality for young people, this is excellent. Above all, Jesus promises not to leave us orphans. We must do our best to help our children to make a real connection with Jesus, so they know the great gift they have been given: The Lord of the Universe offers them a personal friendship, and says: “This is my body, given up for you.”

These words of Our Lord also have a special meaning for you, who have been called to holiness through marriage. Within the partnership of your marriage, each of you is called to say daily to your spouse, through your words and through your actions, “This is my body, given up for you.”

Part of the genius of St John Paul II was to give us a new focus for married relationships, not based on a list of ‘don’ts’ from Church teaching, but based on the idea of radical unselfishness. Jesus gave us the great commandment to “love one another,” using a Greek word for love, agape, which means self-sacrificing service. St Paul counselled the followers of Jesus to “regard others as better than yourselves”. Listen carefully to what he asks of us! He is NOT calling for us to have a negative self-image, to say “I am not as important as other people.” Rather, from a position of strength, we can say to ourselves: “I am a person of equal dignity and worth, but I am going to treat you as if your needs are more important than mine.” If both halves of a partnership do this, you will meet each other halfway. The alternative is struggling with each other to be the “greatest”, and Our Lord was most unimpressed when he found his disciples arguing over that title!

You are not alone. Our Lord understands your tiredness, your weakness, your search for meaning in toil. Eat of the Lord’s body, draw life from him, find the strength to live this life of daily sacrifice – and remember that Eucharist means “Thanksgiving”, always our appropriate response when we receive the benefits of a sacrifice.

Our Mass today began with a prayer which is also commonly used when the Blessed Sacrament is placed on the altar for Adoration:

O God, who in this wonderful Sacrament
have left us a memorial of your Passion,
grant us, we pray,
so to revere the sacred mysteries of your Body and Blood
that we may always experience in ourselves
the fruits of your redemption.

This prayer invites us to ponder what Jesus did at the Last Supper and on the Cross, so that we may have a personal experience of grace, of what Jesus freely gives to us and what we can freely give to others.

A husband works long hours at a manual job, and returns home aching and sore. “This is my body, given up for you.”

A mother notices her stretch marks, remembers her youth, looks at her children and says inwardly: “This is my body, given up for you.”

A couple who understand what it means to live their sexual life without selfishness embrace each other on the altar of the marriage bed, and each says to the other: “This is my body, given up for you.”

Our Lord Jesus, who could have called a legion of angels to remove him from his Passion at any moment, embraces the altar of the Cross, and says: “This is my body, given up for you.”

This Eucharist, this Mass, is the Lord’s marital embrace to his beloved, his bride, his church. We are to receive his body into ourselves in the most physical way possible. We do this at the hands of a priest, who has made his own act of sacrifice; forsaking the right to marry to fully embrace the call to priesthood, the priest too says to his parish and to each congregation he serves, “This is my body, given up for you.”

It is my privilege to offer daily the Sacrifice of the Most Holy Eucharist, when I say to the gathered Church, lending my voice to the Lord, “This is my body, given up for you.” It is your privilege, in the family home, in the domestic Church, to offer the Sacrifice of Holy Matrimony. When you toil long hours for your daily bread, when you bathe your children, when you do the household chores, and yes, when you show your love to one another in the physical way which God has reserved for marriage, you, together with Christ living within you, declare to your husband, to your wife, “This is my body, given up for you.” Your marriage too will bear witness to the world as you remember His next words: “Do this in memory of me.”

Postscript to on-line readers in couples where a Catholic is married to a non-believer:

To the Catholic partner: I remind you of the words of St Paul, that in such a case the unbelieving spouse may be saved by their partner. This is yet another way of saying: “This is my body, given up for you.”

To the other partner, I offer an invitation to ponder today’s Gospel. Can it be true? What your spouse believes is either radical or ridiculous; bread and wine become the body of a man who lived 2000 years ago, the man who was God. This I cannot explain, only proclaim; faith is the gift of knowing that this is true, a gift which comes from God. Ask Him, and he will give you a new understanding of these most sublime words: “This is my body, given up for you.”

First Communion, then the Holy Spirit!

Homily at St Philip Evans for the English-language Masses, with First Communions, on Pentecost Sunday, Year A.

Today is a great celebratFirst Communion children on Wikimedia Commonsion!

For most of the Catholic world, it is the celebration of Pentecost, the day the Holy Spirit first filled the followers of Jesus.

For us here today, it is the celebration of First Holy Communion for some of our children.

So while most of the Catholic world is meditating on the Holy Spirit, we are focussing on the Body of Jesus. But the two have more in common than you might think!

I’d like to ask the children here today to help me look back on how we prepared for today.

What was the very first Sacrament which each of you received?

You were baptised in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. St Paul reminded us in our second reading that “we were all baptised in one Spirit”. The same Holy Spirit came to live in me and in you when we were baptised. We are connected!

Back in February this year, you received your second Sacrament. What was that?

When you came to me, or another priest, for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest stretched out his hand and prayed the words which forgive your sins. Priests have the power to do this because Jesus said to his first apostles, “Receive the Holy Spirit! Those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven!” So it is God’s Holy Spirit, working through me and through all priests, who forgives sins.

In a few moments, I am going to celebrate the Eucharistic Prayer which asks God to change the bread and wine on the altar into… what? The Body and Blood of Christ. If you follow carefully you will notice that twice, I will stretch out my hands to ask God to send down the Holy Spirit. The first time will be over the bread and wine, but the second time my hands will be raised – because I am asking the Holy Spirit to come anew into all of us here in the congregation. The Holy Spirit is like the air we breathe – we have to keep topping-up to keep going!

Children, today marks the start of a new chapter in your life. You will now be members of the church who receive communion. Jesus wants you to be part of his own body, connected to him by receiving his body and blood. But what would happen to a part of your own body if it had no blood supply? To grow spiritually, you must keep receiving Holy Communion.

Today you will be able to say to Jesus, “You are the bread of life, who feeds me.” But this is not the end of your journey. When you are older, you will be able to say to Jesus, “You are the Lord who leads me.”

When I made my first communion, I was a little bit older than you. But it was only three years after that, when I knew in my heart that I had to let Jesus be the person in charge of all of my life. The day I could truly say “Jesus is Lord” was the day in 1993 when I was on a youth camp and I said: “Jesus, show me what you want me to do with the rest of my life and I will do it – even if it is the ‘priest thing’!”

Following Jesus isn’t always easy. As you grow older, he will ask you to do difficult things: to love your enemies, to serve others, to wait until the
right time to do grown-up things. There is another Sacrament to help you to do these things – Confirmation. Through Confirmation God gives you the Holy Spirit in a new way, to bless and serve others. But that is for later. What is important right now is that you receive what you need to help you grow spiritually, and that is your weekly Communion.

When you were baptised, your parents and godparents promised to teach you about God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to do good and to avoid evil. They were given a candle to keep safe, as a sign that they must hand on to you the light of Jesus. The apostles had no godparents – but God himself provide them with tongues of fire. I can’t promise tonmgues of fire today, but ow that you are old enough to speak for yourselves, I invite you to join me on the altar with your candles, to make your own commitment to Jesus.

The news about Jesus, in a language you can understand!

Homily at St Philip Evans for the Welsh-speaking community on Pentecost Sunday, Year A.

The news about Jesus, in a language you can understand!

At the birth of the Church, there was a miracle. God allowed people from many nations to hear the message of Jesus proclaimed in their own language.

I do not have a miracle to rely on! I am grateful to Lorrae, Carys and Julia for helping me to proclaim the message of Jesus in the Welsh language.

Ever since the day of Pentecost, Christian missionaries have used their gifts and talents to take the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth.

Pope Francis was recently asked to send a video-message to some American Pentecostals. He used Italian. He apologised for not speaking English, but said he would “speak the language of love”.

We must be seen to be people who care for others. We must be seen to be people who are trustworthy. If we are not, we will not be credible witnesses for Christ.

The news about Jesus, in a language you can understand!

The language of love is the first step, but not the last. Love alone identifies us as “people who care”. But we are also friends of Jesus, and followers of the Old Faith. If we never speak of Jesus, how will others become his disciples? If we do not promote the Catholic Faith, who will?

In today’s Gospel, we read how Jesus sent his apostles to continue his work. St Paul reminds us that God has given some gift, some talent, some ability, to each one of us.

What are your gifts? What has God given you, to help Welsh-speaking Wales hear the Gospel? What has God given you, to invite others to join in communion with us?

There are few active Welsh-speaking Catholics. Many of you are here attending this Mass. We do not have the luxury of saying, “Lord, send someone better qualified than me.”

We have a mission to help lukewarm Catholics become active.

We have a mission to invite those who do not know Jesus, to join our Church.

We also have a responsibility to help other Christians become part of our communion, though we do not actively target them.

But what this needs is, the news about Jesus, in a language they can understand!

Before Easter, I met with some members of the Welsh-language Mass. We agreed to spend time up until October making contact with other Welsh-speaking Catholics. We need to decide if celebrating Mass in this place, at this time, is what will best serve current and future Welsh-speaking Catholics in Cardiff. This is not about change for change’s sake. It is about the work that God is asking us to do. We will only change if we have a positive reason to change.

After October, we will have decided on this, or another, place and time. Then we must focus on promoting the Mass in the Welsh language, so as many people as possible know it is here. I have already had one offer of setting up a Facebook page in Welsh, but we need to work as a team.

Only you can invite Welsh-speaking Wales to become part of Yr Hen Ffydd.

God has given you the gift of speaking the Welsh language. Jesus is sending you out like the Apostles. The Holy Spirit is offering you heavenly gifts to complete your mission. If this feels like too great a task, ask the Holy Spirit for help. The Holy Spirit can help a small number of people to change the world – and that is what we are celebrating today.

We have the news about Jesus, in a language Wales can understand! May the Holy Spirit help us to speak well!