Homily at St Philip Evans on the Patronal Feast (moved to this weekend from 23 July) – readings specially chosen as follows:
This weekend is a great weekend! Things which have been planned, expected, and worked towards for a long time will come to pass!
By Sunday evening, we will know who has won Wimbledon!
By Sunday evening, we will know who has won the World Cup!
By Sunday evening, a number of you will be the newest members of the Catholic Church!
But I’d like to start with tennis.
There are some important spiritual lessons we can learn from tennis. Did you know that heaven is like an open tennis tournament? God invites us to serve in his courts! When we make a fault, we have the opportunity to try again! And the match starts with an important announcement. “Love All! Love All!”
On 21st July, in the year 1679, a man was playing tennis. The tennis court was in the centre of Cardiff, near St John’s Anglican Church at The Hayes. The player’s name was Philip Evans, and he was a Catholic priest – a member of the Jesuit religious order. His game was interrupted with news of something he had been expecting for a long time – but it was not happy news.
“Mr Evans,” said the jailer, “you are to be executed tomorrow. Please return to your cell in Cardiff Castle.”
“What’s the rush?” replied the priest. “Can’t I finish my game?” And indeed he did.
Why was Mr Evans going to be executed? In those days it was illegal for a Catholic priest to operate in Wales – or in England. For four years, St Philip Evans had worked in secret, celebrating Mass, baptising babies, hearing confessions. But in December 1678, he had been caught, and jailed in Cardiff Castle. He had been put on trial and found guilty of being a Catholic priest. When he was sentenced to death, the politicians decided to wait until the summer so he could be executed on a nice sunny day with a large crowd witnessing what happens to Catholic priests!
The day after that fateful tennis match, Philip Evans, together with another priest, John Lloyd, were taken to a field outside the small town of Cardiff – today we call that area Roath, where Richmond Road meets Crwys Road. There they were executed: first they were hung on a gallows, but cut down before they died; then they were drawn – their internal organs were pulled out; and finally, they were quartered – their bodies cut into four parts as a warning to other Catholics.
Why did Saints Philip Evans and John Lloyd risk such a terrible fate? They were Catholic priests. They believed that it was right to be loyal to the Catholic Faith, even though the law of England said that it was wrong.
They believed that the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, was meant to be the leader of God’s Church across the whole world. Some of you, already baptised, who want to become Catholics today, will declare that you are willing to accept the leadership of the Pope.
They believed that when a Catholic priest blesses bread and wine, it truly becomes Jesus’ own Body and Blood. We can only follow Jesus’ instruction, “Do this in memory of me”, by going to Mass celebrated by a Catholic (or Orthodox) priest. On Saturday morning I took a trip to Abergavenny, to borrow this chalice: it is from the 17th Century and may have been used* by St Philip Evans himself. If the priests who used the chalice had not worked in secret in Wales, Catholics would not have been able to follow Jesus’ instruction. Some of you will receive Holy Communion for the first time today, and you may do so from this ancient chalice!
I have a word of warning for our children who are becoming Catholics today. You will meet lots of people, including many other children, who say “I’m a Catholic” but who never go to church. For every Catholic who does go to Mass regularly, there are five more people in Wales who say “I’m a Catholic” but don’t go to church except perhaps for Christmas and Easter. Do not follow their example. If you don’t want to come and be part of Mass every weekend, please don’t become a Catholic today. It’s not too late to back out. But if you do become a Catholic, please take it as seriously as St Philip Evans did. He risked his life so people could have Mass every Sunday. When your friends invite you to parties, or you get involved in sports or dancing on weekend, please put Mass first. You can do the other things, but work around Mass. Nothing else that you could do on the weekend is worth dying for!
Parents, I’d like to thank you for supporting your children in the journey that brought them to today. In the First Reading, we heard the remarkable story of a mother who urged her children not to break God’s law, even if it cost them their lives. St Philip Evans reminds us that we need to be committed to our religion. And speaking of commitment, I’m now switching from tennis to football.
Next week the World Cup will be over. For many of those football players, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Some of their nations won’t qualify for the next World Cup. Many of the players will be too old in four years’ time. But those players won’t leave the world of football. The ones who truly love football will become officials, or coaches, like Gareth Southgate. They won’t play on the world stage again, but they’ll stay with the Beautiful Game.
Next week, children, you will no longer be part of our special group of “children preparing”. Each of you will be “one of us”. Then you will need to ask yourself the same question as everyone else who is already Catholic and has come to celebrate our Patron Saint today: “What must I do now for our Beautiful Church?”
Our other Bible Readings today remind you of what it means to be on God’s team. Jesus will be your shepherd. He died so that you could be baptised and take part in Mass. You have been chosen by him to be part of his church and filled with his Holy Spirit. And now, lest this sermon go into Extra Time, let us begin by blessing our font!
* Judging by the pictures from this website, Abergavenny have loaned me the chalice thought to have belonged to St David Lewis rather than the one which likely belonged to St Philip Evans – no matter, they died for the same cause!