Raised up by Obedience and Sacrifice

Homily at the daily English language Mass at Fatima

Wives, obey your husbands!

It would be hard to find a more controversial passage in the Bible than the one we’ve just heard. And yet it comes from one of the Letters in the New Testament which we believe are inspired by the Holy Spirit… we acclaimed it as ‘The Word of the Lord’ and said ‘thanks be to God!’

What is God really saying to us today? Let’s put aside any strong feelings stirred up by this challenge, and look deeply into the Scriptures.

‘Wives should obey their husbands as much as the Church obeys Christ.’

Ah… maybe that’s less of challenge that it first seems. How does the Church obey Christ? Badly!

The Church on earth is made entirely of sinners! We are the dough, into which a woman has thrown yeast, to raise us up to holiness! That wise woman represents Mother Church, who ‘raises’ us with her sacraments. Baptism takes the fallen children of Adam and makes of us adopted sons and daughters of God! The Sacrament of Reconciliation raises us up when we fall into sin – if you haven’t yet been to confession during your time in Fatima, I urge you to go! The Eucharist is the life for our souls, and Holy Communion itself has the power to forgive our smaller sins.

That woman also represents the Blessed Mother, who comes to raise us up with her gifts. She offers us the daily rosary, in which we store up prayers for our own hour of death. She offers us the ‘O My Jesus’ prayer, by which we can plead for the salvation of sinners. She offers us her sorrowful and immaculate heart, which we can console by meditating on the mysteries of the rosary, especially on the First Saturday of each month. These are requests, not divine commands which we would sin to disobey – but because we’re here in Fatima, our hearts already sense that this is what our Blessed Mother is asking of us.

But back to St Paul’s letter! Wives are only to imitate the Church, though ideally this means they should ‘submit to their husbands in everything’. Does this mean their husbands can lord it over them? No, husbands are challenged to ‘be the Lord’ for them – imitating the Lord Jesus who sacrificed himself and gave up his very life for the sake of the one he loved!

By entering holy matrimony, a Christian husband and a Christian wife freely choose not only to found a family, but to play out a sacred drama, a life-long sacrament, where the husband must be an image of Christ who died for our sins, and the wife an image of the Church who nurtures all the faithful. There will times a wife must obey her husband, for the common good; there will be times the husband must sacrifice his desire to get his own way for the sake of his wife. No human being can play these roles to perfection; but Jesus does not ask us to achieve perfection. No, he asks for our good will to do what we can, with his help, and the humility to repent and try again when we fail.

By baptism, we all, men and women, married and single, become members of the Body of Christ. We all share in the work of Christ the High Priest. Indeed, there is no action more priestly, for a lay person, than to pray the ‘O My Jesus’ prayer, and to offer the prayer taught by the Angel of Fatima, asking pardon for those who do not believe, do not adore, do not trust and do not love our God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We may feel that our efforts are puny, that our failures are greater than our faithfulness. But every moment we live the values to which Christ has called us, is a mustard seed moment. If you do what you can, Christ will do what Christ can, and though what you can do may be as small as a mustard seed or a grain of yeast, it is enough. Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus, for ever and ever. Amen.

Children of the Light

Sermon for members of Couples for Christ at the shrine of Nazaré in Portugal. Votive Mass of Our Lady Queen & Mother with readings of the day.

Try to imitate God. As children of his that he loves.

On this day, in 1971, a child was born in Italy. Chiara Badano was given the gift of deep faith, and as a teenager she already knew that Christ wanted to be Lord of her life. She did her best to follow him, living exactly the kind of life that St Paul was talking about.

She chose purity, not impurity. We too must choose to keep our bodies for marriage, and not even choose to look at impure images.

She chose to avoid coarse talk and to make sacrifices in order to serve others cheerfully.

So successfully did she become a ‘child of the light’ that the people around her nicknamed her ‘Chiara Luce’, Clear Light!

That light shone brightly, but not for long. Today in 1990 should have been her 19th birthday… but three weeks earlier, she died from the consequences of bone cancer. Nevertheless, in the ten years during which she had been seeking to live as a follower of Christ, the light shone so strongly in her that the Church has declared her Blessed. But until she is made a saint, we cannot celebrate her Mass outside her own country.

Today’s Mass is a votive Mass of Our Lady. The light of Christ shines so brightly in the Blessed Mother that we may find her hard to imitate. Which of us can be at the same time a virgin and a mother? Who among us was conceived without sin?

Yet this raises another question. If Our Lady is perfect, why did she appear at Fatima and ask for prayers to heal her wounded heart? Eight years after the 1917 apparitions, Our Lady of Fatima appeared again to Lucia, and said: “See, my daughter, my heart surrounded by thorns which men constantly drive into it with their blasphemies and ingratitude. You, at least, try to comfort me…” – and she went on to ask all of us to offer special prayers for this intention on the first Saturday of each month.

So is Our Lady sitting at a desk in heaven, monitoring all these prayers on earth with a special app, a kind of ‘Gracebook’? “You have 100 million followers. A billion Hail Marys have been said today…” and the Blessed Mother anxiously checking every half hour to make sure that she’s still getting millions of likes?

No. In our brokenness, we might keep looking at our apps to be reassured that our friends still care, but the Blessed Mother does not suffer from insecurity. Our Lady asks us to call upon her prayers and make acts of reparation not for her sake, but for ours. She wants us not only to enter heaven, but to receive the very best experience when we get there. We store up treasure in heaven by making repeated acts of love for Jesus and Mary here on earth. Imagine the warm embrace when we meet face to face with those two people for whom we have said “I love you!” through our prayers every day of our lives!

Our Blessed Mother is also our perfect prayer partner, but although she is full of grace, she cannot share all those graces with us unless we ask. She appered to St Catherine Labouré in Paris to teach her that we must ask in order to receive in full, and she taught us the prayer, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee” – which every night at the shrine they pray between the Glory Be and the Fatima Prayer!

We come gladly to place our prayers in Mary’s hands. The story of this shrine is rooted in such an answered prayer. One foggy day in 1182, a hunter realised his horse was about to charge over the edge of a cliff. He cried out to Our Lady, whose statue already rested near here – and his horse miraculously stopped right on the edge. This sanctuary was build as an act of thanksgiving.

We are called to purity – the purity of heart which turns away from pleasures of the flesh; and the purity of soul which cries out to Jesus and Mary wih daily acts of love.

If we cannot imitate the Blessed Virgin, we can at least imitate Blessed Chiara. But let’s aim high! After all, the psalms today has challenged us to try to imitate God! As children of his that he loves.

Ad Astra per Nuptia

Wedding homily – for Sebastian Frysol & Jennifer Cavill

Jennifer, Sebastian, you have invited your family and your friends to this place today because you wish to make a public pledge to spend the future together. You could have chosen to simply live together, or to go through a civil ceremony. But we are here in church. Jennifer, I have known you through our connection to the Catholic Church for more than 10 years. Sebastian, it has been my privilege to come to know you, through Jennifer, during the last year. Together, you have chosen certain texts for today; let me reflect back to you what you have chosen.

“Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” These words challenge us to cast our minds to the heavens, and not to be constrained by worldly values. As I look to the stars, it strikes me that by getting married, you are forming your own Federation. A Federation is marked by a set of values its members agree to live by. The values of your Federation are rooted in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

“Honour one another above yourself.” In the best adventure movies, no-one is left behind; or if someone must make the ultimate sacrifice, they do it for the team. In your Federation, the needs of the Many – or at least of the Other – outweigh the needs of the one. There will be days when each of you will need to offer your bodies – your tiredness, or your need to get your own way – for the sake of each other. This is the pledge you make today. When the adventure movie is a science fiction movie, it sometimes turns out that the ultimate sacrifice is not so final after all. I cannot offer you a resurrection machine – but I can offer you a divine promise. When two baptised Christians marry, their marriage bond is a sacrament, a promise of God’s ongoing help. The same divine power which raised Jesus Christ from the dead is on offer to you when you call to God for assistance.

“Help those in need… be kind not because people deserve it” but because God loves them. Your resources are finite, but God does expect that, as individuals and as a couple, when you come across people in need you will offer them something of your own time and resources as an act of love.

“Pray.” In one simple word, St Paul reminds you that you are called to communicate and connect with your Creator. The Bible is an epic about God’s love for us, and our invitation to return love for love. You show love to God by choosing to hold your wedding in church, by worshipping in public and in private, and by praying for one another.

“Live in harmony with one another.” Ever since the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still came out in 1951, it’s been a cliché that an explorer lands upon another planet and says “We come in peace.” Jennifer, Sebastian, although you have known each other for a long time, each of you is still an alien world not fully explored by the other, a living world which will grow and change. So whether the earth stands still, or moves, for you – come in peace, and be prepared to learn about each other anew.

Maybe you well tell each other than you love each other “to the moon and back”… as you pass the moon, you will notice that Apollo 11 bore a plaque saying “We came in peace for all mankind.” Your charge to live in harmony is not only with each other, but with those who are already members of your family, and those who will be part of your family in the years to come – “strange new worlds” for you to explore.

What might be the Prime Directive for your Federation? In the Star Trek universe, the Prime Directive is not to interfere in another culture, or in simple language, to live and let live. In my years of ministry as a priest, I have seen that some of the greatest unhappiness in families comes from unfulfilled expectations: one family member expected that another would visit a certain event, leave them some money, or take their side in an argument, without first receiving a promise that that person would do so. So I urge that in your Federation, to be part of a family is to honour and respect the choices made by other members, even when you don’t agree.

To Jennifer and Sebastian, I say this: by your vows today, you are making a strong promise to support and understand one another, and to respect the different views and actions of the families you now marry into. The Hebrew Bible contains a divine promise, that if you keep the commandment to honour your parents, you will live long and prosper. To the other guests here present, I say this: Today, some of you will become family to each other for the first time. Some of you are even meeting for the first time. Honour and respect one another, but expect nothing of each other other than what is freely offered as a gift.

Sebastian, Jennifer, you now pledge yourself to an ongoing mission, please God closer to 50 years than to 5, an enterprise which is a voyage of discovery. Together you will travel into that undiscovered country we call the future. Go boldly. And if you are ready to forge this new Federation, come forward now.

This homily was inspired equally by St Paul’s Letter to the Romans (12:1-2 & 9-18) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture – described by Jennifer as “A movie all about love, even though it never uses the word.”

Time to Serve

Homily for the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans.

Have you ever known you’ve needed to be challenged beyond your comfort zone?

Great athletes know they need coaches. Without a coach to hold them to their disciplines, they might not get up so early or so often to train in the early morning, nor keep going until they’ve exceeded their personal best.

The young man in today’s Gospel knew he needed spiritual coaching. He was already a spiritual athlete, in the premier league of those who kept God’s Law. But he sensed he was called to more. Jesus threw down a challenge, to step out of his comfort zone and place his total trust in God. On this day, he wasn’t ready… and the Bible doesn’t show us what he did later, so we can only imagine whether his was a story of eternal regret or eventual surrender.

We, too, are running the race to which Christ calls us. We don’t need too much prompting to help our friends and love our families. We only need a little push, as with last weekend’s CAFOD appeal, to help people who are innocent victims of global circumstances – such as those made homeless and hungry by the Indonesian earthquake. But the challenge of following Christ does not stop there. “Love your enemies. Bless those who persecute you.” Today, Christians across the UK mark Prisoners’ Sunday. 

Not all of those in British jails are guilty of any crime. Someone suspected can be jailed on remand, pending trial. More than a quarter of all prisoners do not serve time – because they are released without charge, found “Not Guilty”, or given a non-custodial sentence. We also imprison those sectioned under the Mental Health Act and foreigners whose only crime is to breach our rules about who can enter or stay in Britain.

There are, then, some innocent victims of justice. But nearly three quarters of our prison population are there because they have been found guilty of some serious criminal act. Today, Christ offers us a challenge as taxing as the one given to the young man: will you love me, hidden in those now in prison? When he painted his picture of the Last Judgment, he said, “I was a prisoner and you did – or did not – visit me. What you did to them, you did to me.”

If you’ve ever driven into Cardiff from Atlantic Wharf, you’ll have seen Cardiff Gaol right in front of you. Right now, there are about 800 prisoners in HMP Cardiff. We might be tempted to think “good riddance” – but every prisoner is a human being made in the image of God and loved by Jesus Christ. It’s only right to ask if there’s something we can do to support them.

Maybe one or two of us will be called to become prison visitors, either as part of the official monitoring process which ensures high standards, or through the Chaplaincy which supports Catholic prisoners.

If you’re the kind of person who eats out regularly in Cardiff, you could book a meal at The Clink, the prison restaraunt which trains inmates with skills which will help them get a job on release.

This year Archbishop George has asked us to support the care of prisoners financially if possible. I am conscious that with CAFOD last week and World Mission Sunday next week, this could become an expensive month, so I will not ask for a collection today, but on 3/4 November – this will support the work of the Prison Advice & Care Trust.

Finally, there is one thing we can all do: pray. I’m going to pass round a prayer leaflet with a short prayer for each day of the coming week. If you come to weekday Mass in St Philip Evans, we’ll pray it together at the end of Mass. But you can also use it at home.

I know many of us won’t be enthusiastic about praying for prisoners. Something inside us will cry out – “they brought it on themselves”. So if anyone here today has never committed a sin, feel free to sit this one out. But for those of us who can say “Christ died for me even though I was a sinner” then I, as your spiritual coach, offer you this challenge: give one minute each day this coming week to pray for prisoners, especially those in HMP Cardiff – and if, like today’s Young Man, you feel called to do more – speak to me afterwards.