Serving in the Court of the Lord

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!

Tell Me About Jesus!

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

“Tell me about Jesus!”

How would you answer if someone asked you that question?

Perhaps even more important, is where would you get your information?

Jesus went to his home town. That would be Capernaum, on the shores of Lake Galilee. If you go there today, there’s a church on stilts, shaped like a flying saucer, perched over what we believe was the house of Simon Peter. Just a stone’s throw away is the ruin of a synagogue – perhaps the very synagogue where Jesus spoke in today’s passage.

Note that it wasn’t Nazareth. The people there didn’t know the extraordinary story of the Virgin Mary’s miracle baby.

It wasn’t the pagan town of the Gerasenes, where Jesus had just cast a demon out of an afflicted man. The people hadn’t seen him do that.

It wasn’t the town Jesus was in last week, where he healed the Synagogue leader’s daughter and a bleeding woman. The people here hadn’t seen that either.

What the people of Capernaum did know was that Jesus was a local workman, and they knew his family. “Don’t we know his brothers and sisters? Who does this one think he is?”

We, too, get a partial view of Jesus.

How many of us have read the four Gospels all the way through?

How many of us have read Pope Benedict’s wonderful three-volume work on who Jesus is?

Is your Jesus a traditional “Sacred Heart” with doleful eyes and bleeding wounds?

Is your Jesus a reflection of Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ or a blue-eyed Robert Powell in Zeferelli’s Jesus of Nazareth?

Or perhaps your Jesus is a a swarthy Middle Easterner with a tangled beard, from when the BBC tried to reconstruct the “true face of Jesus” a few years ago?

If we only had today’s passage to go on, we might conclude that Jesus was from a large family with at least four brothers and two sisters. But if we also rely on information passed down orally, not written in the Bible – we call that Tradition – we conclude that Jesus was the only son of Mary, and these “brothers and sisters” were probably cousins, because the words for “brother” and “sister” were used quite loosely in those days. So if you end up in an argument with a Bible-believing Christian, relax. You can’t prove from just the Bible that Jesus was an only child, so don’t try.

“Tell me about Jesus!”

If you know your Bible well, you can tell me that He is the Lamb of God, the Bread of Life, the True Vine, the Good Shepherd, the Way, the Truth and the Life.

If you’ve studied theology, you can tell me that he is the Second Person of the Divine Trinity, True Man and True God united in one person, yet with two wills, human and divine, in union.

Jesus humbled himself to be mocked by Pilate and then suffer death on a cross – he lowers himself so much that we have the rare word “abasement” in today’s prayers to say just how low he stooped for you.

If you know the history of private revelations, you will know He is the bearer of Sacred Heart, the Divine Mercy, and the one who bestowed stigmata on Sts Francis of Assisi and Pio of Pietrelcina.

But all of these things are rooted in the past. What if I asked you to tell me who Jesus Christ is in your life today?

Would you say he is your Lord – which means you obey his every word? Would you call him a Friend, or a Brother?

How do you feel about Jesus?

Perhaps you feel disturbed, because you know Jesus will confront the sin in your life. But do not be afraid, because he loves you so much he has already died for your sins. All he needs is your permission to pay the price for you, which you give him by making an honest confession.

Perhaps you feel concerned, because talking so directly about Jesus doesn’t feel very Catholic. Isn’t it easier to talk about being “part of the Church” and “taking Holy Communion” because these are comfortable Catholic things? But to be baptised as a member of the Church means being a cell in the Body of Jesus. And what is Holy Communion if not the very presence of the Body of Jesus? We might hide Jesus behind the language we use, but he is still there, waiting for us.

All our recent Popes, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, have challenged us to develop a personal relationship with Jesus. We’re stuck in a culture where Jesus is “he who must not be named”. We have to change the culture – unless we can talk freely about Jesus, how could anyone believe that we love Him?

Out of respect, we have tended to defer to Jesus and speak instead about “Our Lord”… but then we slide into “doing church” and losing sight of how the things we do are connected to Jesus. We need to find a middle way, a happy balance!

“Tell me about Jesus!” Tell me about the Person you will meet on the day when your earthly life comes to an end.

Will you meet him as a Judge who confronts you with your unconfessed sins?

Or will you meet a smiling Jesus who has already paid your debts and embraces you at the threshold of heaven?

If you don’t believe such a happy meeting is possible, where is your image of Jesus coming from?

I’d like you to get to know Jesus better. I’d like you to decide, today, to come to the Discovering Christ course we will run on seven Wednesdays in October and November. The clue is in the name – it’s a course about Jesus!

You don’t have to come. In fact, if you can spend one whole minute telling the person sitting next to you about who Jesus is, you don’t need to. But if you can’t, perhaps you need to Discover Christ before you can tell me about Jesus. Mark your diaries now!