Great Expectations: Invite

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

“Great things! I’m expecting great things of you, Mr Leyshon!”

When I was at school, my headmaster left me in no doubt of his high expectations of me. He said so often, in Welsh tones that brooked no argument. He could see that I had the potential to do well, and didn’t want me to fall short.

Jesus looks at us with the same skilled eye of a teacher who wants his class to do well, and his message is the same. “Great things! I’m expecting great things of you, people of St Philip Evans!”

If you read any of the Gospels, it’s clear that Jesus sets a challenge for the people willing to follow him. In the parable of the Talents, he challenges us to make a profit. He commended a poor widow who gave her last two coins for God’s service. In his picture of the last judgment, the “sheep” who helped poor people are admitted to a heavenly reward. And now, last week and again this week, Jesus has told us stories about wheat growing in the fields. Last week he said a person who understands God’s word can produce a harvest of thirty, sixty or a hundredfold. This week he says that we are to be harvested like wheat, even though there are weeds – or darnel – growing among us.

Why does anyone grow wheat? There are only two things you can do with it: you can plant the grain to grow more wheat, or you can grind the grains to make flour. The fruit, the harvest, that Jesus is looking for is disciples  people willing to listen to his teaching and follow it. First we must make ourselves into disciples; then we must encourage other people to hear and follow Jesus also. This makes us wheat which bears fruit.

But wheat is also ground and made into flour. There’s a hymn by Bernadette Farrell which says “may we who eat be bread for others…” – if we live as followers of Jesus, there will be times we are wearied by doing things to help people who will not, or cannot, give us anything in return. We become, like him, bread broken for others. So the harvest Christ is looking for is twofold – our good works, and our encouraging other people to become followers of Jesus.

We ourselves can be easily discouraged. It’s not easy to be wheat, ground, and bread, broken, for others. And it’s not always easy to live out our Catholic faith to the full. There are weeds around us. There are people who take from our parish but give little back. They want weddings and funerals, Baptisms and First Communions but don’t become part of the larger life of our community. Perhaps some of you come here regularly for Mass, but don’t volunteer for any activities in the parish, even during the Mass you attend. When that happens, we become a weak parish. But when we all contribute something, we become strong.

People of St Philip Evans, I am expecting great things of you. A harvest is coming! At the end of your life, to each one of you, Jesus will ask: what fruit have you to show? Who else has become an active member of the church because of you? How well have you done in passing on faith to your children? If that doesn’t seem to be working, what did you do to learn better ways to pass on your faith?

Is it possible for us to bear fruit 100-fold? Yes! Less than 1% of the population of Wales goes to Mass. So it is possible for us to bear fruit 100-fold, if we get all our friends and neighbours involved! But let’s remember that coming to church is not an end in itself – it is a one of the things we do because Jesus asks us to take his Body and Blood and support one another as members of His Body. Our job is to make disciples, to help people want to be followers of Jesus. And we need to start with ourselves, so that we can lead by example.invite

What do followers of Jesus do? They do exactly the kind of things the six banners around our church suggest. Followers of Jesus worship him, by attending Mass and making time for prayer. They volunteer to help the poor and needy, and to make the church community work. They explore what Jesus has taught them and connect with one another to keep the community strong. They invest their own wealth in the community, and invite other people to come and join in.

At this time of year, we may be looking forward to our summer holidays, but we are also beginning to think of the new cycle of life which will begin in September. Here is my challenge to you. All of you have in front of you a leaflet, which suggests different ways you can worship, volunteer, connect, explore, invest and invite. What have you already done this year? Can you take one more step, under at least one of those headings, next year? If you are visiting us from another parish, you can apply this same challenge to the way you support your own church.

I’m inviting you to write your name on the piece of paper, to own it… and to choose at least one thing you are not already doing, to pledge that from September, you will do it. I’m not asking you to hand in the paper – this is between you and God. Don’t let the weeds take away your energy or deter you from growing to be as fruitful as God wants you to be. God holds you responsible for bearing fruit even among the weeds. Jesus, who died for you, is always willing to walk with you, to strengthen you on this journey. Maybe family circumstances mean you even have to drop a big thing next year, but you can still choose something small yet significant. So make your choice – but remember, the Lord and I are expecting great things of you, people of God! Choose wisely!

The Gift of Life

This week, Pope Francis has declared that the Catholic Church will recognise a new kind of saint – one who ‘offers their life for others’ (oblatio vitae). There is no surprise in learning that this is a true pattern of holiness! Our Lord himself said that ‘greater love has no-one than the one who lays down their life for a friend’. What is surprising is that until now, the prayers the church uses to honour saints have not recognised this.

Open an official Catholic prayer book – the Missal used for Mass, or the Liturgy of the Hours which priests and religious order members use for their daily prayers – and you will find many ‘Commons’ for honouring different categories of saint.
Among the martyrs there are special prayers for those killed for defending their virginity. Among the ‘confessors’ (or ‘holy men and women’) there are subcategories for those who worked for education or in service of the poor. There are ‘virgins’, ‘pastors’ (ordained to at least the rank of priest) and ‘apostles’ (a closed category, though last year St Mary Magdalen’s feast day was upgraded to recognise her as ‘apostle to the apostles’.)

Statue of Maximilian KolbeYet no existing category quite fits in the case of a holy person who makes a deliberate choice to lay down their life for another. This problem came to the fore in the case of St Maximilian Mary Kolbe, founder of Franciscan friaries and a prolific evangelist through his expert use of the printing press. At the end of a life already remarkable for its holiness, Kolbe was a prisoner in Auschwitz, and stepped forward to offer his life in place of a Jewish man, a father of children, who was chosen to be executed. Kolbe proved difficult to starve, and eventually died by lethal injection; the man he offered his life for lived to be liberated at the end of the war.

When Blessed Kolbe was proposed for canonisation, Pope John Paul II faced intense lobbying from Germany and Poland to declare him a martyr. But was he a martyr? Had he been killed specifically because of anyone’s hatred of Christian faith? There was no evidence that the camp guards had targeted his beliefs – they had simply accepted his offer to lay down his life for someone else. John Paul II commissioned two officials to consider the matter, whose opinion was that Kolbe was not a martyr – but ultimately the Pope overruled them and canonised St Maximilian while wearing red vestments.

Gianna Molla holding two babiesA similar question can be asked in the case of the ‘martyr of life’ St Gianna Beretta Molla. An Italian physician, she was diagnosed with a serious condition while pregnant. She faced a choice between one kind of surgery almost certain to save her, but with a high chance of triggering a miscarriage; or another kind which was safe for the baby but less sure to resolve her condition. She chose the latter, gave birth safely, but died of complications soon after. She, too, would seem to fit this category of laying down one’s life for another.

It will be interesting to see what steps follow the announcement of this new category. Are such saints to be celebrated using red vestments, or using white? Will there be new Commons to add to the Missal and Divine Office? Will existing saints like Maximilian Kollbe and Gianna Molla be assigned to the new category?

Overall, this does seem like a necessary addition to the way the church classifies her saints and honours them in prayer. Perhaps once this is tidied up, some other missing categories can be filled out – men honoured specifically for their virginal purity, and women who, though not ordained pastors, are recognised as Doctors of the Church. Meanwhile, Holy Saints offering the Gift of Life – pray for us!

The Fault in Our Stars

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Hazel and Gus lie on grass, their faces touching, with the caption Today’s sermon is inspired by a movie – it’s called The Fault in Our Stars. In case you haven’t seen it, it’s a love story about a boy and a girl, who meet in a support group for cancer survivors. Being a love story, it’s not much of a spoiler if I tell you that Hazel and Gus fall in love. Nor would it surprise you to learn that they end up making love together.

I enjoyed the movie, but one thing left me downcast. I walked out of the cinema knowing that if one more thing had been added to the plot, it would have been a truly heartwarming movie I would have gladly awarded five stars. What was missing? Imagine that Hazel and Gus had called in a chaplain to celebrate a bedside marriage, followed by a discreetly filmed love scene. Then it would have been a beautiful love story we could celebrate without reservation… but it’s a sign of our times is that the climax is simply that they climb into bed together.

“Put an end to the misdeeds of body!” St Paul, in today’s Second Reading, calls us to a high standard of integrity. He is echoing the teachings of Our Lord himself, who warned us many times against giving in to lust. This is a message we don’t hear often – indeed, it’s one I don’t often preach about myself – but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Today, I want to remind us all of the standards to which we are called – that making love belongs in marriage alone.

We need to be reminded of this message, because the world we live in keeps pulling us away from it. There are very few movies or television series today where characters insist on being married before jumping into bed together. A story about divorce always bears the sadness of a broken relationship, and adultery always means a promise has been broken – but perhaps we also see these on screen so often they begin to feel normal.

Our stars of television, stage and screen do not set us a great example away from the camera, either. We look to famous people to inspire us, but under the intense pressure of the media’s gaze and a wealthy lifestyle, half of all celebrity couples divorce before they have been together for 15 years – that’s twice the divorce rate of the rest of the population. Drew Barrymore, Eminem, and Britney Spears didn’t even make it to their first wedding anniversaries. Perhaps we should be thankful that we are not cursed with such fame or such wealth!

The truth is, that even in today’s world, marriage is important. Couples who get married before they start living together or having children are most likely to have a stable relationship. Couples already living together who eventually get married also have some advantage over those who never make their relationship official – this is based on solid research on couples in the UK by a think tank called the Marriage Foundation. Getting married doesn’t need to be expensive – we don’t have to follow the trend for ever-more-lavish parties – and I’ve even heard of churches who pull together to put on a reception so that poor members who feel they can’t afford a wedding can tie the knot.

I know I am preaching to the converted because most if not all of you at Mass today who are in stable relationships are already married – though perhaps I should remind you that if a Catholic gets married without the church’s blessing, your civil marriage is not recognised by the Church. If that applies to you, don’t panic – come and see me so I can arrange a blessing for you.

The reason I’m talking about this today is that we have a major task on our hands – we must correct the fault in our stars. When our stars of stage and screen set a poor example on or off-stage, we must not remain silent. We have a duty to remind our children and our wider families that as God’s children, we are held to a higher standard. In today’s world, this attitude might be seen as naive. But doesn’t Jesus today bless those who are child-like and dismiss those who try to be “adult”? Let’s hold on to our childish romances, then, where a handsome prince sweeps up his virgin queen and celebrates a royal wedding! The Bible itself uses the same romance to speak of God’s love for Zion, symbol of ancient Israel and the Church herself.

Parents, I’m challenging you today to talk to your children about the kind of relationships they see portrayed in movies and on television. We can’t hide from the world we live in – we have to respond to it. Don’t stop older children watching what other people are watching, but ask hard questions. What are the consequences of free relationships? When do relationships become oppressive power games? You might find it helpful to check out the movie reviews commissioned by the United States Bishops, readily available online, which pick out the morals highs and lows.

If we try to ban our older children from watching everyday material, we’ll eventually fail. But what we can do is to recommend positive examples for them to watch or read alongside the more worldly fare. I’ve asked friends who are parents to four children to share with me the books and movies they would recommend, and you’ll find their list in this week’s newsletter (and at the bottom of this page).

The issue is this: we live in a world where our celebrities portrays as “normal” and even “good” kinds of relationships which are against God’s Law. We are temped to compromise our values, but on this matter, we must put an end to the misdeeds of the body. We are called to promote the childlike innocence of Christians, not the serpentine wisdom of the world around us. So do not adjust your sex! There is a fault in our stars!


Some book links from my friends:

There is a link on this website to the booklist we discussed and there is also a podcast worth listening to. It is called Season 10 RAR Bonus episode (some of the best books by living authors)

Clink on the link for bookishness, go to book lists

Episode 48, age appropriateness

 

Film recommendations

Here is a list of films that have been released in the last 5 years and I consider to be of high quality, have something positive to contribute to the culture and are not (at the very least significantly) saying anything contrary to our faith.

 

Up to age 14

(U or PG films, nothing to cause problems content-wise)

  • The Jungle Book
  • The BFG
  • Moana
  • Inside Out
  • The Lego Movie
  • Boxtrolls
  • Big Hero 6
  • Paddington

Age 14+

(these are all rated 12 (or less), but I think are better suited to 14+ as there will often be some swearing, violence, intensity and/or sexual references which I wouldn’t consider suitable to younger children, however it very much depends on the child. Sometimes for me it’s not just about specific content but what the film is about and what age will best appreciate the story)

  • Marvel Avengers films: series of 15 (and rising) interconnected films starting with Iron Man (2008) and most recently Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017). The stories are overall very positive, good vs evil, protecting the innocent, doing the right thing, friendship, loyalty etc. lots of action, jokes and a cleverly unfolding larger narrative. All have mild bad language and some have intense scenes and occasional sexual reference. Not to be confused with the other Marvel franchise, the X-Men which although 12 rated has more violence and overall lower quality
  • Star Wars films: Everyone knows these! The most recent ones are 12 rated but are mild, with no bad language or sex references, rating for intensity only
  • Arrival (2016): Brilliant sci-fi about an alien arrival with a pro-life undercurrent, intense scenes of bereavement and occasional bad language
  • A Monster Calls (2016): Powerful film about a boy coping with the imminent death of his mother. There is a lot of fantasy adventure in-between and the film emphasises the wonder of life and how trials can bring family together
  • The Hunger Games (4 films 2012-2015): Slightly controversial as at the end of the first film the characters seem to choose suicide as a valid option (although it doesn’t actually happen) but I don’t believe the film endorses this choice, and while there is some intense action and violence, the films have a strong lead character who stands up to tyranny and dictatorship and the series ends on a positive pro-family note
  • Suffragette (2016): Fictional drama about the suffragette movement, very strong message about the value of all individuals and fighting for what is right. Some mild bad language and an ongoing subplot about an abusive relationship
  • The Hobbit / Lord of the Rings films: Fabulous imaginings of Tolkien’s world. Hobbit films not as good as LOTR but still high quality. No bad language or sex references but many intense / frightening scenes
  • Edge of Tomorrow (2014): Action packed sci fi / alien invasion film about a cowardly soldier who is forced to face death many times and learn how to defeat earth’s enemy
  • Ender’s Game (2013): Low key but well-made sci fi about a boy being trained to lead a mission against an alien invasion, more intellectual than action orientated with some interesting ideas about who our enemies are
  • Saving Mr Banks (2013): Story of the making of Mary Poppins, great characters and lots of laughs, as well as positive emotional journey for the main character. Only rated PG but the backstory of an alcoholic father is a bit intense for youngsters
  • Gravity (2013): Stunning sci fi about a woman stranded in space, strong message of the value of life. Some bad language and intensity
  • Captain Phillips (2013): Gripping and moving true story about a cargo ship overtaken by pirates. Mild bad language and many intense / emotional scenes
  • All is Lost (2013): A sailor is stranded out at sea and tries to survive. Celebration of the resourcefulness and resilience of man. One incidence of strong language.
  • The Impossible (2012): Based on the true story of a family hit by the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand. Very emotionally powerful and positive about what family means. Very intense in the Tsunami scenes with some gruesome images.
  • Lincoln (2012): Story of Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to end slavery. Celebration of idealism and value of the individual. Brief strong language and war violence.
  • Les Miserables (2012): Musical of Victor Hugo’s novel. Very strong affirmation of the value of people, full of rousing songs, emotional uplift and positive Catholic characters. Some bleak situations, sexual references and revolutionary violence.