The End of the World (Christ the King Parish)

Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent, Year C at Christ the King.

“When will all these things come to pass?”

That was the natural question on the lips of Jesus’ followers when they heard these terrible predictions, and it’s a natural question for us to ask, too.

We can predict, reasonably well, when some disastrous things will take place. In fact, the word “dis-aster” literally means “bad star” and we know that one day, our nearest star, the Sun, will go bad. In about five thousand million years, it will run out of nuclear fuel and swell up, scorching planet Earth to a cinder, or perhaps even engulfing it entirely!

Five billion years is a long way away. But don’t relax yet! Some of the latest results from mapping the 300,000 stars nearest our Sun tell us that in just one and one-third million years, a passing star will cause thousands of comets to rain down upon planet Earth and perhaps cause other disruption in our solar system.

Cosmic disasters might be too far away to trouble our children’s children, but by the year 2080, it’s forecast that more than a million homes in the UK might be at risk of flooding, and our coastal roads and railway lines could be badly affected too. I talked about the environment a few weeks ago so I won’t go into detail again, but we can all do our bit by reducing the amount of energy we consume.

There’s another disastrous date to put on your calendar. 2059. That’s a mathematical prediction of when the number of people worshipping in this church will fall to zero, based on changing congregation numbers since 2009. Oh dear… we’ve only just celebrated being open for 40 years, and in another 40 years there will be no-one left!

Actually, my prediction may be a bit off. Christ the King Parish did rather well in holding the number of worshippers steady for most of the last decade, until the numbers took a dip when we lost one of the three Masses. So it’s not really fair to fit a straight line to data with a big kink at the end. But what we do know is that in most Catholic parishes, the number of people going to Mass is gradually going down. And Jesus didn’t call the church to shrink. He called us to go out and make disciples!

This congregation has a reputation for being very active in working for justice. It’s great to be involved with Foodbank and other projects. But what about the specific task Jesus left his followers – making disciples of all nations? Who in this congregation is actively asking, “What can we do to make our congregation grow? How do we help people who might leave, to stay? How can we ask new people to join?”

I’ve got good news for you. Some Catholic Churches are growing! The Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, grew its Mass attendance from 1500 to 4000 in a few years! The Church of St Benedict in Nova Scotia raised its level of parishioner engagement from 7% to 40% in a few years! And there’s more good news! If you have succeeded in really engaging parishioners you don’t have to appeal for money or volunteers – engaged Catholics want to give, and give generously!

Avoiding disaster may need us to make some painful decisions. If the way we currently run our church is causing us to shrink or at least stay static, carrying on doing what we’re doing isn’t likely to make us grow. Maybe to be more effective we should be pooling our resources with other parishes. For the time being, Christ the King is an independent parish with its own building, which happens to share a parish priest. If the congregation does shrink – and when you look at the age profile, that does look likely – the day will come when you can’t afford your own building. They say turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, but it’s chickens who don’t make painful changes to secure the best possible future. The day might come when difficult questions have to be asked about Mass times or even merging with other parishes. The Archbishop has already asked the parishes from Whitchurch thru Llanedeyrn to co-operate in what we call the Northern Arc… this is an informal partnership at the moment but things could change.

Even so, Christ the King has done well in recent years. Perhaps you’re not at the point where you need to think about a merger. Perhaps there are enough resources in this community to be able to invest in things that will make this congregation grow. So which of you are actively asking “What makes successful parishes grow? When can we learn from thriving Catholic parishes?”

Next summer, all the priests and deacons in Cardiff will attend a three-day conference with an American lay woman, Sherry Weddell, who had a brilliant idea. She studied the stories of dozens of converts who started out as non-Catholics and ended up as very active Catholics. What do they all have in common? Sherry found out, and if we understand how non-Catholics become active Catholics, we can become very effective at inviting more non-Catholics to do the same!

All across the diocese, parishes are now being asked to run 6-week-long reading groups to study Sherry’s book, which is called Forming Intentional Disciplesto try out some of the ideas, and send delegates on June 15th to a day when they can share their experiences and receive coaching from Sherry herself. That could happen here, if a few of you choose to start a study group and work on encouraging parish growth.

“When will these things come to pass?” the disciples asked the Lord. “No-one knows the day or hour except the Father”, Jesus replied, speaking of the end of the world. But as for when studying and investing in the future of this parish will take place – that’s up to you!


For the Poor!

Homily for the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans – World Day of the Poor


We can listen with our ears. But we can also listen with our hearts, and we can listen with our eyes.

I’d like to invite you to use your eyes to listen to this prayer.

I wonder what thoughts and feelings that stirred up in you?

Perhaps there are people we don’t really want to accept in our lives, and that makes us feel uncomfortable. They are too demanding, too uncomfortable.

Perhaps we are jarred by the line which addresses God as “Mother”. To be sure, Jesus reserved the name “Father” for God and the best way to understand God, is as the best possible Father. But God is beyond gender, and uncomfortable words teach us something. Rembrandt painted the father of the prodigal son with one motherly hand, and even Jesus compared himself to a brooding mother hen!

The world around us seems full of injustice. The news in recent years has been full of stories of migrants from poor countries reaching rich nations, or dying in the attempt. In our own nation, too, there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. Just this week, a UN inspector has criticised Britain for not doing enough to address poverty, and the Government’s plans for Universal Credit, which started as a good idea to reward work, have suffered from both cuts in funding and practical difficulties in making the system work well for vulnerable citizens.

In the face of such injustice, our hearts cry out: “Why doesn’t God do something?”

Strangely, today’s readings are partly about God not doing something. If you listen carefully to the Books of Daniel and the Apocalypse, you will hear that God will allow a time of distress to come upon the world before God’s faithful people are rescued. Even so, the saints in heaven, who have faced torture and persecution because of their faithfulness to God, are the ones loudest in singing God’s praises!

Crystal McVea was a woman who had every reason to hate God. She was abused as a child, and although she turned to God for help, and chose to be baptised at the age of nine, her suffering did not end. The emotional wounds of what she had been through continued to scar her teenage years. Later, her six-year-old son suffered severe brain damage because of a traffic accident. Aged 33, Crystal herself was taken into hospital with pancreatitis – and during treatment she was clinically dead for nine minutes.

Now, I’m always cautious about claims of “near death experiences” as proof of anything about God or heaven, but Crystal’s story is truly remarkable. You would have expected her to blame God or ask all the obvious “why” questions. That’s what she expected of herself. But that’s not what happened. As soon as she became aware of the loving presence she identified as “God”, her instinctive reaction was to fall down and worship. The expected questions, “Why didn’t you love me? Why did you let this happen?” melted away, and only one question remained: “Why didn’t I do more for You?” Her life was changed and her love for God was immeasurably deepened!

We are faced with two brutal facts. One is that there is suffering in this world. The other is that we claim “God is love”. So either we are wrong about God, or somehow, that perfect love exists alongside our broken world. Although Jesus worked a few miracles which helped people immediately, his mission was to teach us to give generously. Miracles may happen in answer to prayer, but God is not going to fix all the world’s problems from above. Rather, God has entrusted that work to us.

Listen! Pope Francis has designated today as the World Day of the Poor. His aspiration is that every parish should put on a meal this weekend where we can sit down at table with members of our local community who could never return the favour. We are not yet organised enough as a parish to do this, but today we will acknowledge what we can do. We do collect gifts of food for the foodbank – today you can bring them up personally as part of our collection. We do collect clothes for asylum seekers and refugees living in Cardiff – a bag of such clothes will form part of our collection today. We do have a small “Listening Group”, whose role is to listen to the needs of the local community – first from the volunteers who get involved, but later by going out into the community to meet people. Could you be one of our listeners?

Today’s Letter to the Hebrews starts with an image of the Jewish priests offering daily animal sacrifices, but explains this is no longer needed because Jesus died for all of us. Even so, as Christians, we are called to make a daily sacrifice. Not one of animals, but one of our own time, treasure and talent. The needs of the poor call us to make a daily gift of ourselves to the people we meet. And in our procession of gifts today, our worship of God is entwined with our gifts for the poor. The two cannot be separated. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI once said that “love for the poor is liturgy”.

God will do something about it. He will do something in you and through you. Elaine, who leads our Listening Group, has asked that we should say this prayer together which reminds us of our own responsibility. So let’s pray it, and listen!

Christ has no body but mine,
No hands, no feet on earth but mine.
Mine are the eyes with which he looks,
Compassion on this world.
Mine are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Mine are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Mine are the hands, mine are the feet.
Mine are the eyes, mine is his body,
Christ has no body now but mine,
No hands, no feet on earth but mine,
Mine are the eyes with which he looks
With compassion on this world.

Christ has no body on earth but mine.

The words of the prayer above are derived from a text often attributed to St Teresa of Avila but in fact more likely to be the work of Mark Pearse and Sarah Elizabeth Rowntree. They must be understood poetically; Christ is of course present in the Blessed Sacrament on earth, but in this form he does not physically go out to minister to the poor.

Acknowledgement: I first read the story of Crystal McVea in Imagine Heaven.

Certain Joy

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C (Rejoicing Sunday) at St Philip Evans.

“There is no need to worry,” says St Paul in today’s letter.

That’s easy for him to say! In fact there’s lots we can worry about, and we worry above all when we are faced with uncertainty. So what causes uncertainty?

Sometimes, we choose to test ourselves by going on an adventure. That’s different. We deliberately push ourselves out of our comfort zone to stretch ourselves. We have the comfort of knowing we can turn round and come home whether we succeed or fail in reaching our goal. But when we speak of ‘uncertainty’ it’s because it’s our very life ‘at home’ which is threatened.

We face uncertainty when we try to live beyond our resources. For a time, we manage, but then we hit the limit. It might be a credit card limit. It might be a question of reapplying for our job when our employer is downsizing. It might be a person with failing health who knows they must enter a care home. In these cases, our instinct is to fight against the inevitable.

Have you ever faced a situation where you have to work harder and harder to keep all the plates spinning, all the balls in the air, and deep down you just KNOW you can’t keep this up for much longer? Our human nature clings to what is familiar and doesn’t want the indignity of saying “I can’t…” If we only we had the courage to say “I need to downsize, I need to let go,” we could find ourselves living in the relative certainty of living within our means. But how hard that is in practice!

We face a time of uncertainty in the Catholic Church, because we are living beyond our means… and for this, we need a quick history lesson. A hundred years ago, there were roughly two million Catholics and 4,000 priests in England and Wales. That’s one priest for every 500 Catholics. Between 1930 and 1940, lots of young men offered themselves for the priesthood. So by the end of the Second World War, there was one extra priest for every four already serving a population. Bishops had more priests that they had parishes available, and most of them wanted to be parish priests. So when cities like Cardiff grew outwards in the 1950s and 60s, bishops decided to build lots of new churches for them.

But was this hike in the number of priests a blip or the new normal state of affairs? We know now that it was a blip. By the 70s we were back down to one priest for every 500 Catholics. Today, in England and Wales, there’s one Catholic priest for every 750 Catholics. By building lots of churches in cities like ours, we’ve accidentally created a pattern too big to sustain, and that’s why we’re living with uncertainty.

How, then, can we trade in uncertainty for security? Certainly, we can pray for lots of vocations to the priesthood. Indeed, that’s one of the few things Jesus explicitly told us to pray for – that God would send labourers to the harvest. But considering the time it takes for a young man to apply, be selected and complete his training, any fruits of today’s prayers wouldn’t be seen until nearly 2030. Today, too, most Catholics have smaller families. Do we have the courage to say to Catholic parents: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if your son, your ONLY son, discovered he was called to be a priest?”

Every parish longs to have the undivided attention of its own parish priest, but because we built so many small parishes in the 60s and 70s, that can’t happen for the foreseeable future.

So what can bring us certainty?

One answer is to ask, “How do we run this church with only part-time attention from a priest? What structures and leadership do we need to make that work well?”

Another possible answer is to say, “We’re too small to be a church on our own, we ought to be part of something bigger.”

These are not comfortable answers. But they are realistic answers. Maybe in one or two places, a sick or elderly priest who can’t manage more might be given care of a small parish, but that can’t work everywhere. The only way to re-establish certainty is to ask for no more than our fair share of the number of priests available, or to become part of a parish so large it merits having its own priest.

Sometimes I hear naive Catholics saying: “We don’t have to downsize! God will provide!”

But in fact God has provided. In Wales and England combined, we are rich with priests! In the Philippines, there is one priest for every 8,000 Catholics. In the USA, there is one priest for every 2000 Catholics. Here in the UK, we are blessed indeed to have one priest for every 750 Catholics but we have abused such riches by building very small parishes… and that in turn means we, like all small parishes, only have a small pool of talent to call on for Children’s Liturgy, church maintenance, catechesis, care of the poor and all those other things Christ calls us to do together.

John the Baptist went out into the wilderness, and challenged people to change. To the tax collectors and the soldiers, he said, ‘Don’t take more than your fair share.’

Change is never easy, but we can choose to change when we recognise that we are changing to something which is just and fair.

Be certain that God loves you.

Be certain that God has blessed our country richly with more than our fair share of priests to serve us.

Be certain that our fair share in St Philip Evans is less than one whole priest to ourselves.

There is no need to worry. Pray to God for priests. Pray to God for this parish to have its fair share of the available priests. And pray for your heart to be content if what you enjoy in the future is smaller than what you have enjoyed in the past. This rose vestment is a sign of the purple pain of waiting blended with the white glory of God’s full blessings. So rejoice: your future is rosy!

There’s good evidence that the number of vocations falls when families are smaller in this 2011 research paper.

I’ve written elsewhere about the history of Catholic statistics in England & Wales.


For the Love of God!

Homily for the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans 

Have you ever fallen in love?

When I was an undergraduate, there was a student who stole my heart. One day (these were the days before mobile phones), I went to her room, and there was a note on the door – “I am in the Library – come and rescue me!” So I hastened to the Library and declared “Rescue is at hand!” – only to be glared at and shushed by the dozen readers close enough to hear my enthusiastic whisper!

When you’re in love, you’ll do all sorts of things for your beloved. Needless to say, I didn’t marry the young lady in question – she married someone else, but we still keep in touch to this day.

Some of you not only fell in love, but did get married. That means you have done a very strange thing. You have stood up in public, and a minister has asked you whether you have ‘resolved to love’ your spouse. A few minutes later you addressed your spouse and said ‘I take you to love and to cherish’.

What kind of ‘love’ is being promised here? Clearly it’s not the kind that propels you to do great deeds whatever the consequences. We know from experience that a few years into a relationship, those strong feelings of passion die down to something less ardent. But while we can’t conjure up strong feelings, we CAN make a decision of the will to communicate to the most significant person in our life that we still care about them. When the Bible uses the word we read as ‘love’ it is using the Hebrew word ‘hesed’ or the Greek ‘agapé’, words that are hard to translate with their full meaning. Imagine a person going to the same lengths to help a stranger as if that person were their own son or daughter – that’s hesed! Imagine the committment made by a volunteer who goes halfway round the world to treat the wounded in a war-zone – that’s agapé!

Now, please take a moment to think of the kindest things you have ever done to help people in need… OK? Now what if you didn’t believe in God? Would you still have done those kind things? Yes? Would a good person do things like that even if they didn’t know there was a God who loved them? Yes? The kind of things you are thinking of are examples of the Second Great Commandment: love your neighbour as yourself.

That’s great… but that means we’ve only covered the second most important thing Jesus asked us to do. And if you only ever remember one thing I preach from the five years I’ve been with you, remember what I ask next: Which things do you do in your life because you believe in God, things that wouldn’t make sense if God didn’t exist? It’s the answers to that question which show how you are fulfilling the First Great Commandment, to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

Some of us will understand what the Jesuit Gerard Hughes meant when he described a child visiting ‘Good Old Uncle George’. This Uncle lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff and threatening. Uncle George says ‘I want to see you here every week, and if you don’t come, let me just show you what will happen to you!’ He takes you to the basement, opens a door, and down below you see demons torturing souls in Hell! He then takes you upstairs so Mum and Dad can take you home. Mum leans over us and says, ‘Don’t you love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?’ And you tell the biggest life of your life, ‘Yes, I do,’ because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace. Who could love a God like Uncle George?

Doing religious things out of fear for God is not wrong, but it’s not love. The catch is, you can’t obey the command to love God until you’ve first fallen in love with God. The command is like the promise a husband or wife makes to keep on expressing love even when the passion has died down – we can only joyfully accept the command to love God when it’s an echo of passion we’ve already felt for Him! Once you have fallen in love with God, you will want to come to Mass, pray at home, keep Sundays special and give generously to the work of the church.

Jesus was asked to give us a rule for life. The Hebrew Bible contained 613 commandments; Moses famously gave 10 commandments. Jesus knew we couldn’t all take on board long lists of rules, so he made it as simple as possible – but even he couldn’t boil it down to just one. Like the Cross itself, our rule of Christian living has two dimensions – the horizontal, love of neighbour, reaching out into the world around us; and the vertical, stretching from earth to heaven, reaching out to the Father who dwells in heaven above. Jesus can only command us to love His Father if we have already seen the love, beauty and goodness of the Father reflected in Christ. The command is not to kiss a loathesome Uncle George, but to rekindle the passion of the first moment when we knew the depths of the Father’s love for us.

Have you ever fallen in love? If it’s with the person you’re married to, rejoice – and remember to tell them how much you love them tonight. If it’s with God, rejoice – it will be easy for you to fulfil Christ’s command! But if you haven’t yet fallen in love with God, let me offer you a simple prayer to say tonight: “Jesus, show me the Father.” And if you want to see the Father, find him reflected in the face of Jesus. I pray you will fall in love very soon.

You can also read Revd Lucy Winkett’s reflections on Uncle George.