Virtuous Living

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 1st Sunday of Advent, Year C.

(Every worshipper today is given a sticky label to write their name on. At the start of Mass, we celebrate the rites of welcome for those to be baptised or received into the Church next Easter. Before reading the Gospel, the congregation are asked to remain standing for a moment when it ends.)

Altar servers, singers, members of the deaf pastoral group, please take your seats. Each of you sits in a certain place because you need to be in that position because of your role. Now, could I ask the rest of you to exchange places with someone else? And be seated.

(A basket of straw is presented.)The outline of a heart, made in agricuotural straw

See in the corner, our crib has been built. Here is straw for the floor – straw for the place where the Son of God will be born among men and women. When the Son of God came to earth, his first dwelling place was a borrowed dwelling. Advent begins today – the season when we must make our hearts ready for the coming of Christ. It is right and fitting that we begin Advent in a place slightly strange and uncomfortable.

Advent! Happy new year!

This weekend, we celebrate a new church year, and as on January 1st we make resolutions for our life in general, so today we should begin afresh our spiritual life. We all suffer from the human condition. We know the good things we are called to do, but we become lazy or distracted. We sometimes need a reminder to do the good things we already know we should be doing. The words of scripture speak to us:

  • Live the kind of life that you are meant to be living;
  • Live the kind of life that you are already living;
  • Do not allow your hearts to become coarsened.

The first words of our parish Vision Statement say: The parish of St Philip Evans is a welcoming Catholic community.

They remain only words on paper unless we put them into practice. How should we welcome others? To answer that, ask yourself how you would like to be welcomed when you visit another church?

For example, you are a visitor sitting in another church and the regular parishioner who normally uses that seat arrives. Do you want to be asked to move, or do you expect the regular parishioner to sit elsewhere without passing comment? The golden rule tells us that we must treat others the way we would like to be treated. So if any one of us comes to St Philip Evans and finds our usual seat occupied, I’ll tell you exactly what to say. Say this: “Thank you Jesus, that a new person has come to join us!”

I’ve asked you to swap seats today as a reminder that the seat you usually sit in is not your seat. It’s only a seat you are welcome to us as long as no-one else is already using it. Even this chair here behind the altar, it’s not my seat. When the Archbishop comes, he uses it. If Deacon Steve conducts a wedding or funeral, without any priest present, he uses it. If the inn-keeper in Bethlehem has said “This stable isn’t a place for families,” Our Lord would have been born in the streets. But Our Lord was welcomed to a place which wasn’t his.

Now, a second reminder. What happens when we exchange the sign of peace? Exactly one year ago, I asked us to begin doing so by name. Today we are wearing name badges to make it easier for us to do so, but on other weeks I encourage you to ask the name of anyone standing near you don’t already know, before you shake hands.

How else can we make this a welcoming parish? We need to ensure that anyone who volunteers to help is given a genuine opportunity to help, as long as they can do so competently. I’ve heard of parishes where no-one else was allowed to help with flowers, or with the collection, or with counting the money, because so-and-so always does it. That is not the sign of a welcoming community. No-one should be forced out of a role where they are doing good work, but neither should any one of us block another person from helping.

Why don’t we always welcome help? Sometimes it’s pride – “I can do this on my own.” But God doesn’t want us to work alone; love asks us to work together. And sometimes we don’t want to let go of a role because we think it’s what makes us important. But there’s a saying, that the graveyards are full of important people. For most of us, sooner or later our health or our family circumstances mean that we can no longer do the things we used to. If I ask “Who am I?” and the answer is “a child loved by God not because of anything I’ve done, but because God’s loves me anyway,” I can feel secure. If I ask “Who am I,” and the answer is, “I am a Reader, or an Extraordinary Minister of Communion, or a Signer, or a Singer,” then I have a problem, because on the day I can no longer do that role, and such a day will come, I will have a crisis.

Each one of us is called to grow in virtue. That is, we must keep practicing our good habits until they become automatic. Getting into good habits is like strewing straw in a stable, it makes the ground ready for Christ to live in our hearts. Today let’s practice the good habits of welcoming others, and helping them to share in our work.

God expects that each one of us will give generously of the talents and abilities entrusted to us. We may even receive a special reward in heaven for doing good on earth. But we don’t do good to earn our place in heaven – we can’t. The child born in Bethlehem earned that for us. It’s HIS seat, but he doesn’t mind if we sit there too. So budge up – make room for everyone! And may the Lord be generous in increasing your love for one another!



In Memory of Vivien Christine Snow

Eulogy given at Our Lady and St Illtyd’s, Llantwit Major, on 9 November 2015.Vivien Snow

For me to be asked to give Vivien’s eulogy is rather like being asked to describe a precious stone when you have only had a good look at one face. There are some facets where you can see the edges just a little, and others which you can only see through the stone itself.

I first met Vivien at a conference in Carmarthen in 1995. Viv had recently stepped down from her role as Chair of Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Wales, and was now leading their conference’s youth programme. I was 21 at the time, so I still counted as “Youth”, and in the months which followed, Vivien encouraged the young people to gather regularly for prayer and time together. As one of those young people, I first visited Llantwit Major and got to know Viv at home, as well as in church. The youth group petered out, but my friBrown horse with white noseendship with Viv grew and lasted, through frequent overnight stays at Lane Cottage.

There are many facets of Viv’s life which I only know through those conversations with her. A horse called Harvey, who died two years ago – the last of a series of horses owned and cared for by Viv. Her elderly relatives, being cared for close to home. Her decades of work with the SVP, where she became Mid Glamorgan District President 2000-04. Her role as editor of the Llantwit Major & Cowbridge Parish Newsletter, which she produced faithfully for 25 years. And, of course, her early life.

Vivien was born in Hornsey in North London, and grew up in Barnet where she attended Queen Elizabeth Grammar School. She was clearly a powerful influence in her family, blowing all the pocket money for one holiday by splashing out on a fishing rod for her brother Geoffrey, while bamboozling sisters Natasha and Clare by giving them a pound and saying “Buy a 99 flake for me and get something for yourself” – what did the ice-cream van sell for a penny?

Vivien’s youth was marked by regular family holidays roaming across Europe, planting in her a love of continental camping. Before many British holidaymakers had discovered the continental trail, Viv could be found camping in a Greek resort where Cliff Richard has filmed Summer Holiday a few months earlier. Unsurprisingly, Vivien read Geography at Southampton University, becoming a teacher of Geography and Religious Education, and a noted author of school geography textbooks.

After a time spent teaching in Dublin, Vivien came to live in Llantwit Major in 1972. Here she became engaged to Michael in 1993 and enjoyed a long and happy marriage. She taught at two Cardiff Catholic High Schools, Bishop Hannon and St Illtyd’s, and later at the state school in Malpas.

In her early life, Vivien was an Anglican, but she was received into the Catholic Faith by Revd Ray O’Shea around 1973. In the late 1960s, the Catholic Church began to experience the phenomenon of ‘charismatic renewal‘ – a revival of the gifts mentioned in the Biblical Acts of the Apostles, speaking in tongues, prophesying, and experiencing God’s healing power. In Wales, Bishop Langton Fox was given oversight of this charismatic dimension of church life. In the young Vivien, he spotted the talents necessary to organise a national conference, and to represent Wales on the world stage. Despite her protests of inexperience, she became a key figure in arranging the annual Wales National Renewal Conference; and at world gatherings of charismatic leaders, where most countries sent bishops or senior priests, Wales sent Viv. Often the only woman and youngest lay-person present, she would read the Bible Lesson at Mass in these gatherings, and developed a close relationship with the Pope’s delegate to charismatic renewal, Cardinal Suenens of Brussels. I am told that she became known at the time as the “Cardinal’s sidekick”! Within Wales, she led the charismatic prayer group at The Walk Convent in Cardiff and rose to become chair of the National Service Committee 1984-90.

All of that took place before I came to know Viv. Before I share my own experience of her, I must acknowledge that in her written instructions for today, she stated that I was to speak about her faith. Now, “Faith” is an action-word. It’s not the beliefs we hold in our head – it’s what we do with them. And of all the Catholics I know, Vivien more than anyone else embodied what it is to be a lay member of the Catholic Church. The Viv I have just described was involved in the church at national and international level; the Viv I knew personally lived this out at home as well.

The faces of Viv where I only glimpsed the edge of what she did included her annual summer camping holiday. I would receive postcards from Christian sites the length and breadth of France and Italy, from Ars to Assisi, and we had a common love for the shrine of the Sacred Heart in Paray-le-Monial. I know that her travel plans also revolved around the question of where she could stop each weekend so as to be sure of hearing Mass.

Viv often spoke of her involvement in the parish here at Llantwit Major – in its administrative structures one of the best organised parishes I have come across, a gift to any parish priest placed in charge here. Her specialist role was on the magazine production committee. She was involved in the Parish Magazine from its beginning, and was editor of the last 12 editions, including the 50th edition which went to press just before she died. In that capacity she persuaded me to write articles on several occasions.

The face of Viv which I came to know directly was Viv at home, a friend I could visit and stay with for 24 hours without running out of things to talk about. On some such visits I would celebrate a house Mass – it was a sign of Viv’s concern for the poor that she would often invite friends who found it difficult to come to church, to join us. I know that for some fellow-clergy, Viv was the one who encouraged them to step out and put their beliefs into action. For me, Viv was a friend who shared my Catholic values, an utterly trustworthy ear for confidences which would go no further. Viv was passionate about praying the Divine Office, the official prayer of the church, and our visits were punctuated by saying the Office together at the appropriate times of day. When I received news of her passing I picked up my breviary and prayed the Office for the Dead – it seemed like the most appropriate thing to do.

Viv hated flying, but overcame this to visit Medjugorje with Mike, a pilgrimage which marked a deepening for both of them in their sense of how the Mother of God was an integral part of their relationship with Christ. They had planned to go again this year, and invited me too – alas, her health meant that I went with the group but Viv and Mike remained in Wales.

In her daily prayers, in her commitment to her parish, in her passion for attending Sunday Mass, in her faithfully attending the Chrism Mass each year, in the international work she did for the Catholic Charismatic Renewal before I met her, I think we can truly say that Viv lived out her faith as an active member of the Church at all levels, giving her heart and soul to serving God. Why? We can find the best answer in her choice of one of our hymns today, “The love I have for you, my Lord, is only a shadow of your love for me.”

Before I end, there are some words I have been asked to read out.

From Viv’s husband, Mike: “I am a most fortunate person. I have had two marriages which have been extremely good marriages. I think that my marriage to Viv was a truly Christian marriage.”

From the Irish missionary priest, Pat Collins, who visited Viv a week before she died, I send his apologies that he cannot be with us today but an assurance of his prayers.

From Tony Warburton of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, an acknowledgement of Vivien’s long service and that she was “well thought of in the SVP”.

From Neil Tully, who succeeded Viv as Chair of Charismatic Renewal in Wales: “Those early days of Renewal were truly life changing, and Vivien was at the forefront. All of us owe her a great deal, strong leadership and good organisation. The challenge for all of us is to continue Vivien’s good work, to bring people to new life through the power of the Holy Spirit.”

From Fran Graham, the current National Chair: “Catholic Charismatic Renewal in Wales owes Vivien an irreplaceable debt for her work. We will miss her, but pray now that she has eternal peace and joy and that she will intercede for us. We offer our deepest sympathy to her husband Michael and all their family, and will keep them in our prayers.”


There is much more which could be said. In preparing these words I looked at Viv’s photo album on Facebook. There you can see Viv with the family members and friends she loved very much, with Harvey and many other horses, and perhaps the most typical recurring image – Viv somewhere on holiday, raising a glass of wine to the camera. At the Last Supper, Our Lord said that he would not drink his last cup of wine until he could share it with us in His Father’s Kingdom. In her last post on Facebook, Viv wrote: “On my way to Llandough – No e-mails while in hospital.” There is, sadly, no connection to Facebook where Viv is now, either, but when we catch up with her I’m pretty sure we’ll confirm that the selfie we’ve just missed out on involves two glasses.

I am tempted to finish with the sonorous words, “We will not see her like again”, a traditional turn of phrase in these Celtic lands when a person of stature has left our midst. But I think these words would be quite inappropriate for Viv, and for two reasons. First, we profess as Christians that in death, life is “changed, not ended”: Viv is not lost to us. But second, Viv’s great work was to inspire many other people to embrace the Catholic values she held dear. If we can each embrace and imitate her faithfulness to the Church and its mission, then her likeness will live on, and be visible, in each one of us. We might interpret her very name, Vivien Christine as, “living image of Christ”, which is what every Christian is called to be.

So – until we meet again, farewell to Vivien Snow, formerly Perry, formerly Thomas. Farewell to our Llantwit Gem, a living image of Christ in our midst. Enjoy your final and never-ending holiday, where Mass is always at hand – and rest in peace.

Please Give Generously

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

“Hello! I’m calling on behalf of the Big Charity Appeal of the week – do you have five minutes?”

Giving to Charity has been in the news recently, and for all the wrong reasons. Details of generous givers are passed from charity to charity, and those who are most generous are bombarded with appeals to give – most notoriously, in the recent tragic case of Olive Cooke.

We can try to opt-out of receiving unwanted mail or phone calls, but sooner or later we will be confronted by yet another request for charity – someone shaking a bucket at a supermarket door, an appeal to “spare any change” on the street, and even when you come to church, you know that once or twice a month, there will be yet another appeal for a retiring collection!

It’s easy for us to feel pressured by our own guilt. A charity has sent us a free pen or coaster? We ought to give in return. The people either side of me in church are watching – how much should I put in the bag?

Today, I’d like to share with you a simple antidote to guilt. It’s called planning. The most likely reason for us to feel guilty about an appeal to give, is that we haven’t planned how much we intend to give this year, and set an honest limit. I’m not talking specifically about what we give to church, but all our giving – to family members who don’t live in our household, to charities we choose to support, and to colleagues or strangers who approach us to ask for help. We are called to practise not charity, but generosity.

There’s one key verse in the Bible we should keep in mind – it’s II Corinthians 9:7.

Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

We are called to give generously and cheerfully, not out of a sense of guilt or obligation. So in these next few weeks, we might look at the coming year 2016 and make a deliberate plan of what we will give. We might choose to give to certain charities and no more. That way, when we receive an awkward phone call or meet someone on the supermarket steps, we can say, with no guilt, “I’m sorry, I’ve already decided which charities I am going to support this year. When I re-pick for next year, I will keep your cause in mind.” Or as part of our planning we might keep back a percentage for “contingency giving”, for the colleague at work or the needy person on the street; and once that amount is gone, it’s gone.

But if we are planning how much of our income to give, how much should that be? Here are some suggestions.

100%. That’s what we see in today’s Gospel, and Our Lord speaks warmly of what the woman has done. We aren’t told how God provides for her in return for her generosity, but we know God has seen her good deed and implicitly, she won’t lose out. The Franciscan Friars of the Renewal operate a policy where at the end of each year they give away any remaining funds and start on January 1st with zero assets. God provides!

95%. Give away almost everything and keep just the bare minimum. This is what Oskar Schindler did, liquidating his fortunate to buy the freedom of Polish Jews. When it was time for him to make his own escape, the film Schindler’s List portrays him lamenting that he could have sold just a little more to save three or four more lives. St Katherine Drexel, an American heiress, gave away most of her fortune in founding her own religious order.

50%. An equal share for yourself and the person in need. St Martin of Tours cut his cloak in half to warm a beggar. Blessed Mother Teresa told a story of taking rice to a starving family. The mother receiving it promptly poured half into a bowl and took it next door to their equally famished neighbours. The widow in today’s First Reading had an extra mouth to feed, so Elijah’s fair percentage was 33⅓.

10%. In the Old Testament, the Jewish people were clearly instructed to set aside 10% of their income to give to the Temple – this was called a tithe. Compared to the stories we’ve just we’ve just heard, from the Bible and from the saints, suddenly 10% sounds quite manageable!

These decisions are the kind which all the adults in a household need to make together. Once you have decided on your percentage, then you can share this between the different good causes you can support. You might keep in mind how many other people will support the same cause. Your elderly parents? Only your brothers and sisters. This parish? No-one except parishioners. Next week’s diocesan appeal for retired clergy? No-one except other Catholics in South-East Wales and Herefordshire. Big national charities? The whole population of the UK!

There’s no need to feel guilty because we can’t support every single good cause which comes our way. It’s even OK not to support every retiring collection we hold in church. These days, we need to remember that a person who puts nothing in a collection bag may already have a direct debit set up. What’s not OK is for us as Christians to refuse to be generous. The measure we give to others will be the measure God returns to us.

I’d like to leave you with the story of two friends walking along a beach. The tide has washed up a number of starfish, slowly drying out and dying on the shoreline. Every so often, the first friend reaches down, picks up one of the starfish, A five-armed starfish on a white backgroundand casts it into the sea. They walk on in silence for a long time, and eventually the second exclaims: “Why do you bother? There are so many starfish and you can only throw back a few. Do you think you’re really making a difference?”

The first friend made no response, but simply reached down and picked up the next starfish, smiled, and threw it into the surf with a satisfying plop. “I reckon it made a difference to that one!”