Do You Love Me?

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.The front cover of the book "Do You Love Me?" with a red sky and a fishing boat on a shore

“Do you love me?”

Don’t worry, I’m not suffering a moment of insecurity – I’m quoting the title of a quiet best-seller which is trending in Catholic bookshops across the UK.

Earlier this year, our bishops produced an excellent little book which leads the reader on a guided meditation. It’s best followed in bite-sized chunks, and allows you to explore many aspects of Christian prayer.

Each of today’s readings teaches us something about prayer, too.

Hebrews reminds us who we are praying to, and through, in Jesus – he is our Great High Priest, and as human as we are. Prayer is a conversation, and speaking with Jesus is rather like being one of the pilots in the same squadron as Prince William. Behind closed doors, you can treat a Royal Heir to the Throne as one of your mates, and share a laugh and a joke with him. On the parade ground, it is right and proper to bow and show the utmost respect in the presence of His Royal Highness. If you are part of the squadron, William is at one and the same time your friend and your prince. It is just the same with the relationship we are invited to have with Our Lord.

One kind of prayer is simply telling Jesus about what’s going on in our lives. He doesn’t need us to say it for the sake of Information – as Lord of Creation, he knows already what we are doing and thinking. But as our friend he loves to hear us confiding it to him in our own words. St Faustina, who had the rare gift of hearing the Lord speak clearly to her, once heard him say: “My daughter…why do you not tell me about everything that concerns you, even the smallest details? Tell Me about everything, and know that this will give Me great joy.” She answered, “But You know about everything, Lord.” And Jesus replied: “Yes I do know; but you should not excuse yourself with the fact that I know, but with childlike simplicity talk to Me about everything, for my ears and heart are inclined towards you, and your words are dear to Me.” So have no doubt that speaking to Jesus of the ups and downs of your daily life is a perfectly worthy form of prayer!

Blind Bartimaeus, in the Gospel, is looking for Jesus. He knows the Lord is near, but needs some help finding him. So he cries out: “Lord! I need you! Have mercy on me!” Jesus hears him and responds, but doesn’t come directly to him. Rather, Jesus calls Bartimaeus to come to him. Now Bartimaeus faces a harder challenges – unable to see, he must abandon his protective cloak in a crowd, and set out towards the voice of Jesus. This takes courage! So when Jesus declares “Your faith has saved you!” he means that Bartimaeus is being rewarded for taking a risk – leaving behind his security, and stepping towards Jesus. Blessed Newman showed the same courage in his poem Lead Kindly Light, not asking to see the final destination, but only the next step.

Jeremiah points us to yet another kind of prayer. “Shout with joy for Jacob!” he declares. When we gather for Sunday Mass, we are invited to take part in a joyful celebration of and with the God who loves us. Pope Francis has warned us not to look like sourpusses when leaving church – the Spanish word he used translates literally as being “vinegar-faced”! Right here, right now, we might have come to Mass burdened by many problems, but we are invited to look not at our burdens, but towards the Lord who has the power to rescue us from all distress. We do not cry out with joy at Mass because everything in our life is a bed of roses, but because we trust in Jesus. Just as Bartimaeus trusted that if he abandoned his cloak, he would receive his sight, so we must trust that praising God when we don’t feel like it, will lead us to new blessings.

In ancient Israel, Jewish worship services involved cymbals and rams’ horns – imagine celebrating Mass with vuvuzelas! Jesus’ 12 apostles sang psalms at the Last Supper. For centuries, monks and nuns sang chants in their chapels. But we lost the habit of joyful singing when we became an underground church in the British Isles – when we were celebrating secret Masses in English mansions or on Irish rocks, there was no question of making a loud noise. Now it’s time to rediscover our voice. We sing at Mass because we choose to make a joyful noise to the Lord. It’s not a question of how we feel, but of giving to God the praise that God deserves!

Prayer doesn’t happen by accident – it happens because we choose to pray. We might be motivated by our own needs – for forgiveness, for help, or for health. Or we might pray harder for a friend who is sick or dying. But hear the words of Jesus, “Do you love me?” – and in love, choose the highest form of prayer, to give praise and thanks to God, to begin a conversation with Jesus, because he is the Lord who loves you. If you need some help praying, or if you want to explore forms of prayer you might not have tasted before, give this book a try. Over the last few months it has certainly enriched my prayer life, and I know it can bless yours, too.

So: Courage! Get up! Jesus is calling you! What would you like to say to him?

Invite Me, Lord!

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B – Prisoners’ Sunday.

Do you know what prayer the Rich Young Man prayed every day? I don’t know, but I’m going to take a guess… something like “Here I am, Lord – use me as you will.”

For many years he had prayed this prayer, because deep down he knew that God was asking something more of him. Yes, he was keeping the commandments, the do’s and don’ts binding on all Jewish people. But he still knew he was called to something more. Why couldn’t he grasp what it was? Maybe he was hiding from it. Maybe it wasn’t God’s time to draw him out…

And then, one terrible and glorious day, the Rich Young Man was faced with a golden opportunity to ask a Rabbi, a spiritual Master, Jesus Himself! So ask he did… and he was forced to face the answer he had been dreading all along: “Sell everything!”

We are not told what he did next. We know that in the short term, he went away sad – he certainly did not do what was asked of him straight away. Perhaps he went away having lost all hope. That’s a sobering thought on this day which is Prisoners’ Sunday. We’re invited to spare some of our love for those rightfully imprisoned because of the choices they have made. Prisoners live separated from family and friends, tempted to despair. Our Christian love must stretch even as far as those who seem to deserve to be unloved. Love demands that we even bring hope to the hopeless.

There again, perhaps the Rich Young Man went off to meditate on the challenge to change. We know that change is never easy – yet change will come to all of us in our lives. The most difficult change to make is the one we have worked hardest to avoid.

Over this summer I received a challenge to change, and a moment of grace. It’s no secret that I’m overweight, enjoy second helpings and Jaffa Cakes, and take two sugars in my coffee. I’ve known for a long time that I ought to do something about it. For several years now, I have been asking God for the grace to be motivated to act. And much to my own surprise, the week I got back from my mini-sabbatical this summer, I found myself taking sweetners in my coffee, avoiding second helpings, and operating a strict “one biscuit only” policy. It’s not easy; it needs daily will-power; but I’m doing it. Why now? Partly because of the encouraging words from trusted friends during my travels, but partly because now is when God has chosen to give grace in answer to prayer.

For many years, we in this parish have been praying weekly, “Here I am, Lord – use me as you will.” What is God’s will? In recent months, we’ve worked hard to develop a Vision Statement – our understanding of what God’s will is for us as a parish.

The Vision Statement covers lots of ground. Some parts we are living out already. Our vision is to be a welcoming parish – that’s partly about attitude, which involves all of us. If someone is sitting in your usual seat, do you ask them to move, or thank God that a new person has come to Mass? Being welcoming is also about having our team of welcomers in place, so a big thank you to the team members who have been doing this for the last few months.

Part of our vision is that we encourage all people in living in our parish to join our church, and that we run social projects to bless our community. These are long-term aspirations – we are not ready to start working on these yet.

It’s time to focus on the middle part of the vision, that part which will prepare us for the greater challenges ahead. In order for us to grow as a parish and fulfil our vision, what we need to do right now is to strengthen the links between individual members of our community, and devote time to prayer and to studying our faith.

There are times when extensive consultation is appropriate – and I have done this to the best of my ability in coming up with our Vision Statement.

There are also times when a parish priest needs to take a strong lead, just as Jesus suddenly challenges the Rich Young Man to leave everything and follow him. Today is one of those times. Through the Vision Group and the Parish Advisory Council, we have agreed the journey we need to make – now we need to pray it into being. From this very weekend – as suddenly as Jesus confronted the Rich Young Man – our parish prayer must change to serve our vision. Today’s First Reading begins with the words “I prayed, and understanding was given to me.” So we are not only called to pray, but to pray for the wisdom we need to do God’s work.

Now, there have been times on retreat when I’ve been asked to repeat a prayer after the leader, and I haven’t known what words are coming next, which has left me reluctant to join in. So here is the prayer I will invite you to say in a few moments:

Invite me, Lord Jesus, to know you better, through prayer, study and the people of my parish.

Through PRAYER – because Jesus wants a heart-to-heart with all of us.

Through STUDY – because Jesus asked his Apostles, and through them His Church, to pass on his wisdom.

THROUGH the people of my parish – because even if you are a visitor and this is not your parish, it is through the people of your own parish that Jesus wants you to come together to build a church of living stones.

INVITE ME – because in asking this you are not promising to take up the invitation, but only to know in your heart what Our Lord is asking you to do.

At the time in my life when I first wondered if Jesus was asking me to be a priest, I was afraid. But then I realised that because Jesus loved me, he would not invite me to do anything harmful to me. And because Jesus was wise, he would not ask me to do anything which was a bad idea. Once I realised that, I knew the very best thing I could do would be to accept his invitation.

So here is our new Parish Prayer:

Invite me, Lord Jesus, to know you better, through prayer, study and the people of my parish.

May the Lord, who has begun this good work, bring it to fulfilment!

  • You can also read the story of how another Christian minister was motivated to tackle his weight,

Not Good

Homily at Nazareth House (Mass in Welsh), on the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B – Prisoners’ Sunday.

Line drawing of a stylized jailDuring my final year at seminary, I spent a month working in a prison. One Saturday night the priest-chaplain announced that the following day he had to celebrate Mass in a different jail, so I would be taking Sunday Service. Quickly I looked up the set Bible readings – they were all about confessing our sins and being forgiven! How to preach this to a chapel full of inmates? There was only one possible beginning – come down to their level. “We’ve ALL done things wrong in our lives…”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus Himself resists being called “good” – even though he is the one man on earth truly worthy of the title. The New Testament invites us to live lives of deep humility, always treating others as better than ourselves. That’s not to do ourselves down and say other people ARE better than us – only that we do them the honour of treating them with dignity.

Prisoners have been in the news this week, with the European Court of Justice deciding that it is fair to deny voting rights to prisoners convicted of the most serious crimes. We live in a society which opposes all forms of unfair discrimination, but when it comes to prisoners,  it seems that we are allowed to say: “They deserve it!” As followers of Jesus, we are asked to see in every prisoner and ex-offender not a convict, but a human being. Jesus says when we visit a prisoner, we visit Himself – and prisoners are not excluded from those the Bible tells us to consider as better than ourselves.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus meets a young man, full of ideals, full of energy, full of hope – but full also of a sense of security which comes from his great wealth. Does Jesus, seeing into this young man’s heart, reject him or condemn him? No, the gospel tells us that, knowing him so well, Jesus looks steadily at him and loves him.

Those who end up in prison, do so for many complex reasons – maybe through greed, plain and simple; maybe through a love of violence for its own sake; but the reasons why people commit crime are indeed complex. And it is so important, if people in prison are to ‘make all things new’ to begin a new life that they stay close to those who know them, to those who love them and who will support them once they are released.

We all need to be challenged about how we lead our lives, about our values and our relationships. Today’s gospel should help us to do this. Let us remember those ‘least deserving’, but no less in need of our support. We need to support the families of people in prison, so that they can support their loved ones when they are released. Please pray for those in prison, that they have an encounter with Jesus Christ and know that they are loved. Please pray for those who love people who are in prison. Please pray for the work of the Prison Advice & Care Trust, and the prison chaplains who work in Wales and beyond, so that loving relationships may be strengthened.

Our own sins may not be heinous crimes, but our Second Reading reminds us that every one of our faults is known to God. Each Sunday we celebrate the truth that Jesus died in total payment for our sins, even though we didn’t deserve this. Let us remember that whenever we point a finger, three fingers point back at us. Let us be humble enough even to pray for those in prison. The Lord, who is truly good, will honour us in return – for nothing is impossible for God!


But is it true? Reflections on the Sellotape Effect

When I prepare a weekend homily, I take care to check my facts. It’s amazing how often a piece of information which I think I know turns out to be nearly right, but from a different author or source than I first “remembered”.

In this week’s homily, I assert that the more sexual partners a person has, the less strongly bonded that person is likely to become to each one in turn. This was based on a talk I heard in 2009 by Kaye Smith, using a powerful visual illustration with sellotape, and I see that an Irish chastity group uses a similar routine. One British newspaper picked up on this and reported it with great skepticism.

This caused me to wonder whether there was in fact good evidence for what I was going to assert in my preaching. Would this be one of those cases where a factoid is embraced by Catholics who “want it to be true” to support moral teaching? Finding the answer is not straightforward! As a scientist I cannot settle for “anecdotal evidence” – it is important to be rigorous, even though scientists are occasionally pilloried for “proving what everybody knows already”. Further, as a priest who has always been celibate, this is a topic where I am moving well beyond my own lived experience.

First, there IS good scientific evidence that within a monogamous relationship, sexual intimacy becomes less satisfying as the novelty wears off – this effect is known as habituation. This can be measured either by asking the person to comment on their experience of satisfaction (subjective) or less directly, but objectively, by tracking hormones known to have a role in bonding and pleasure, such as oxytocin and vasopressin. A key paper illustrating subjective habituation was published in 1995 by Call, Sprecher and Schwarz.

David Disalvo alludes to psychological research indicating that habituation also accounts for the higher failure rate of second and subsequent marriages, because subsequent marriages can never capture as much novelty as the first pattern of deep sexual encounters. See his book’s section Singing the Habituation Blues.

There is also research by Jay Teachman showing that a marriage is more likely to break down if the spouses cohabited prior to marriage, and more likely to break down if a woman has cohabited with more than one person prior to marriage. Other research broadly supportive of traditional Christian marriage has been gathered by Sir Paul Coleridge’s Marriage Foundation.

To some, sympathetic to the traditional Christian view of marriage, the stance I take on habituation – the reason why it is best to avoid multiple relationships – may seem simply common sense. To others, unwilling to be restricted by traditional norms, and prizing diminishing novelty above security, it may seem unduly paternalistic. Supporters of both positions might well be able to produce anecdotes – from couples who remained chaste until marriage, and from those who have tried multiple relationships yet finally succeeded in forming a strong bond. A scientific approach treats individual anecdotes cautiously, and requires multiple cases generating robust statistics before a conclusion is drawn. My view at this time is that the brief comment in my homily is not proven but is strongly plausible, and in the absence of better evidence, will have to do for now.

My thanks to Dr Foley and Dr Lewis for their assistance with this research.