Like the Pope, not the Pope You Like!

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Solemnity of Saints Peter & Paul, 2015.

Who’s your favourite Pope?Medallions of Popes John 23 thru Francis from the Basilica of St Paul's Outside the Walls

Let’s face it, as human beings we instinctively have favourites. And over the last century, we have been able to know major figures, such as popes and prime minsters, through television, radio and photography, in ways past generations could have hardly dreamed of.

When Cardinal Ratzinger was elected in succession to St John Paul II, he must have thought carefully about what name he would pick. Each possible name was loaded with meaning. John XXIV? An indication that the pace of change would pick up. Paul VII? A small but significant indication of putting on the brakes. Pius XIII? A desire to return to how things were before the Second Vatican Council. John Paul III? Audacious – but no-one could fill those shoes in the same way as the Polish Pope. Wisely, Cardinal Ratzinger picked the only other papal name used in the 20th Century. Benedict XV had been elected at the outbreak of the Great War and gained a reputation as a man of peace until his death in 1922. In choosing his Papal Name, Benedict XVI signalled his desire also to be a man of peace, while refusing to allow himself to be labelled a liberal or a conservative.

When Cardinal Bergoglio became Pope, he picked a name loaded with meaning – ‘Francis’ had never been used by a Pope before, but the very name sent a strong message about making Jesus known in a simple way, caring for the environment, and rebuilding our church. When Blessed John Paul II was declared a saint last year, Pope Francis fast-tracked Blessed John XXIII to the same status, bypassing the usual requirement for a second miracle to be attributed to his intercession. The ‘progressive’ Good Pope John was canonized alongside the more ‘traditional’ John Paul the Great.

That’s interesting. Both of our most recent Popes have tried to avoid being pigeon-holed as a “liberal” or a “conservative”. These are two traps we can easily fall into.

Some of us instinctively feel most comfortable in the past. We remember the Latin prayers we grew up with, the ceremonies the Church used to carry out regularly, and those old familiar memories feel very comfortable. They say “nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”, but if your favourite Pope is one who didn’t encourage big changes in the way we worship, that might be because you don’t like change. That’s very human, but it’s also an obstacle to spiritual growth, since the Gospels often say “Change, and believe the Good News!”

Others among us are natural humanitarians, with big hearts drawn to ease the sufferings of others. We might see in St John XXIII or the reign of Pope Francis someone whose values are like our own, although all the Popes, in quiet ways, have cared for the poor. We might even get frustrated when Popes fiddle around with the structure of prayer services or focus on teaching about the Trinity, investing energy where it doesn’t obviously help people in need.

Some years ago, in moves begun by St John Paul II and completed by Benedict XVI, we were asked to adjust the language used to celebrate Mass in English. Some saw the new form of English as beautiful and fitting for the majesty of God. Others felt it was needlessly complicated. But we made that change as an act of unity with the Pope.

We have, today, a new heir to the keys of Peter. Pope Francis holds, for his reign, the power to bind and loose in earth and in heaven. He has chosen to use this power to announce a Year of Mercy commencing this autumn, a year for the forgiveness of sins through pilgrimages to the Holy Doors to be set up in our cathedrals and the work of Missionaries of Mercy sent far and wide to forgive sins. He has also asked us to give a special priority to care for Planet Earth, our common home. No Pope can do everything at once, and only by taking one thing at a time, can those who fill the shoes of Peter fulfil the mission which St Paul spoke of in today’s second reading, the work of ‘proclaiming the whole message’.

It’s OK to have a favourite Pope. What’s not OK is to pick and choose which Popes we are willing to listen to.

In the Gospel we’ve just heard, Our Lord chooses Simon-Bar-Jonah the fisherman, and gives him a new name, Peter, meaning ‘The Rock’. He names him the foundation stone of the new community, the Church. It was part of the Lord’s plan for a mere human being to be the centre of unity for the Christian Community on earth. And that man can only be a centre of unity if we accept the lead he gives us. We don’t have to like everything he says. We can have our own private opinion about what priorities we would have chosen if we were Pope. But we’re not. Other Christian communities are divided precisely because they make major decisions at national or local level. One of the things that makes us Catholic is having one person as a centre of unity for the Church throughout the world.

We read in the Gospel that ‘Herod meant to try Peter in public’. Today, every Pope is put on trial in public. The secular press and the Catholic press analyse every word and action. Often enough the reports we receive tell us little about what the Pope has done, and much about what the journalist concerned thinks the Pope ought to do.

If we only follow those Papal teachings we like, we have set ourselves up as Pope and made ourselves judge of whether to accept each Bishop of Rome as our personal advisor. But if we are truly Catholic, we will trust the Lord to build his Church on the Rock of Peter in every age, and we will choose to make each Pope’s priority our priority, whether that Pope is our favourite Pope or not.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, as the senior Cardinal says at each Papal Election: Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: HABEMUS PAPAM! I announce to you a great joy. WE HAVE A POPE!

Whether or not he is your favourite Pope, this I know: the Pope’s a Catholic. Are you?

Popes you can LIKE on Facebook: FrancisBenedict XVI, John Paul II, Paul VIJohn XXIII, Pius XII, Pius XI, Benedict XV


Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

Have you ever been in an embassy?A calculator and a pen on a balance sheet

I don’t think I have. I’ve ordered visas by post, but I’ve never had to visit an embassy in person.

Except… in a very real sense, I am in one right now! Every Catholic church, every Catholic parish, is an embassy of the Kingdom of Heaven.

All of us who are members of the Catholic faith have a dual nationality – we may hold the passport of some earthly nation, but we also are citizens of heaven, journeying on Earth for a human lifetime.

Unlike most earthly nations, the Kingdom of Heaven is recruiting new members! We cannot read many pages of the Gospels without seeing that God desires his Kingdom to grow. Those entrusted with talents must invest them for the growth of the Kingdom, or have their assets taken away. The King will reap what he has not sown. We are expected to play our part!

Next month, representatives from all over England and Wales will be gathering for a day in Birmingham, to examine how we, as Catholics, can make our parishes more missionary, to help our parish communities make Jesus known to the local community. 37 people are going from this diocese, and I’ve been asked to give one of the workshops. On the same evening, 11 July, all our parishes are being asked to keep an evening of prayer, for the success of the conference, and for God’s blessing on this renewed work of reaching out to make Jesus known – Mass here will be celebrated by Revd Ambrose Walsh, who will ask you to stay behind for half-an-hour of prayer in support of this initiative. Then, in October, we will have our own local conference in Cardiff, and there are brochures about this available at the back of this church.

One thing I do know about embassies is this: they want to present their own nation in the best light, so they are well-maintained and kept in excellent condition.

Another day, I will speak about how we can use our personal skills for the good of the parish, but there are some maintenance tasks for which the only sensible option is to pay for professionals to come and do the work. So today, I would like to speak about our parish funds – where they come from, and how they are used. Later, we will publish detailed accounts in our newsletter, but today I am only going to use round numbers, and whenever I say ‘k’, I will be referring to a sum of one thousand pounds.

Last year – the 12 months ending 31 March 2015 – our income was £83½k. Just over half of that – £43k – came from what you have generously put in the collection at weekend Masses. You have also given us another £15k through the annual sponsorship programme in which individual families pledge to pay the costs for particular items, and another £1½k through other fundraising activities – I should make special mention of the Union of Catholic Mothers who in recent months not only gave us £1000 from their general funds but raised another £480 through a coffee morning.

The remaining £24k came from other sources – £7k from the taxes you paid, returned to us by HMRC; £5k of profits from hiring out our hall; £3k from the diocese to help with the cost of hosting a student, and a whopping £9k from a single parishioner who left us the money in her will.

Eighty-three and a half thousand pounds sounds like a lot of money. But when you consider that 300 of us attend this Church every weekend, that works out at just over £5 per person per week. And it doesn’t stretch far when we have to pay the bills.

What did we spend money on last year?

Looking after buildings is an expensive business. We spent £16k last year on repairs, maintenance, new fixtures such as the sign at the entrance to the car park, and paying the heat, light, water and insurance bills. We didn’t need to do any really big building repairs – so £16k is on the low side of what we could have to pay some years.

To keep me and Jonathan going cost £10½k – that covers our travel expenses, food, fees for retreats and conferences I go to as a priest, and the small salary I draw from the parish.

Running the parish office – postage, photocopying, paper supplies, and paying salaries to our Secretary and Bookkeeper – came to £8k.

The consumable things we need for Mass – candles, wine, hosts, charcoal and so on – came to £4½k.

We are also pledged to pay £1500 each year to help Corpus Christi and St Illtyd’s Schools employ part-time chaplains.

Then there’s the money we have to pay to church’s central funds – to the diocese – to cover salaries for the central staff who help us run our schools, keep our children and vulnerable adults safe, and look after our property. One third of everything we give on Sundays automatically goes to this – that was £23k last year (I know that’s more than a third of what I said the collection was, but we pay in based on the previous year’s income). We are also in debt to the diocese after installing central heating a few years ago. The good news is that we managed to pay off £12k last year. The not-so-good news is that we still owe the diocese £45k.

All told, it cost us £75½k last year to run the parish, and meet our obligations to the diocese. This is not a healthy position for us. If we hadn’t received that legacy of £9k, we would have a £1k shortfall instead of an £8k surplus. And where is that £8k surplus? It is sitting in our current account as a cushion so that we don’t go into the red when several big bills come along at once.

From time to time, perhaps once a year, it is good to review what we give to our church. Perhaps our financial circumstances have changed, for better or worse, and this should be reflected in what we now choose to give.

I’ve shared this financial information with you first so that everything is transparent and accountable. You have the right to know how the money you give is administered. But as a parish priest, I also dare to dream.

I dream that for one year only, if everyone doubled what goes into the Sunday collection or our direct-debit giving, we could wipe out our parish debt.

I dream that if, from next year onwards, the giving stayed doubled, we could employ a lay pastoral worker to assist with the parish workload and save something towards future building works – and then I would never need to preach about ‘giving’ again!

There are four ideas I’d like to share with you about giving.

First, if you don’t currently plan in advance what to give, what about making a definite decision about what you will give to the parish each week? If you want to set up a direct debit from your bank to ours, that’s easily done, or we can provide envelopes to put in the plate each Sunday. If you are a tax-payer and don’t already use Gift Aid, the parish is missing out on more than 20% extra of what you are giving!

Second, think of what you give as an act of worship to God. Although I have shared thoughts about what different amounts of money would make possible, don’t give to meet a target for us to achieve something in the parish. Give as an act of worship. Remember, this parish, this Church, is an embassy for the Kingdom of Heaven, and what you give directly to it is a sign of how much you honour the King – and Jesus asks to be given first place in our lives.

Third, rather than thinking of what you give to the church as a fixed amount for the next 12 months, could you dare to give a percentage of your income? In the Old Testament, the Jewish people gave 10% of their income to the Temple. There’s no Catholic rule that says you have to give 10%, but I know many people who have discovered that if we are generous to God’s work, God repays our generosity in such a way that we are never out of pocket.

Finally, for those of us who have already experienced God’s generosity, there is a further challenge… is God nudging you to give a higher percentage than you do already?

This is our church, our parish, and we are the citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven who are responsible for it. God expects us to help his Kingdom grow, and it is up to us to keep our embassy in the best possible condition. Plan to give God what God deserves, and if you dare, give the King a percentage of your income. If you’ve never been responsible for an embassy before – this is your chance!