Guidance for Guiders

Sermon for members of the Catholic Guide Advisory Council at a vigil Mass of Divine Mercy Sunday

Look at them! Aren’t they great! Everyone respects them! I’m not sure I could do what they do, though…

Who am I talking about?

In our age it could be the Salvation Army, or the RNLI Lifeboat crews… maybe even volunteers who work with uniformed groups. The attraction is the evident good fruit. The hesitation is the knowledge that there is a cost to getting involved… a cost which may take a person outside their comfort zone. A cost which requires someone to face a challenge and learn from her experience!

2000 years ago it was the first followers of Jesus. There was something attractive about them – a kindness and compassion which went beyond the tough society in which they lived. It didn’t hurt that miracles of healing took place regularly among them too! But there was also a hesitation – to become one of THEM required a declaration that the troublesome Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, was God-made-flesh, and that just didn’t fit Jewish or Roman ideas!

Every Guide, and Guiding Volunteer, makes the same promise: “to be true to myself and develop my beliefs”. You who have gathered here today are here because you are true to your own beliefs as Catholics, and you are asking how to be faithful to those beliefs in the world of Guiding today. This is a crucial question!

In Britain today, we claim to champion diversity. But I’m not sure there are many people who hold diversity as their highest value. Perhaps such a person exists… if so, imagine them giving a quick introduction to our culture?

Welcome to Britain. Here we prize diversity above all other things. Some of our people are physically disabled – it’s important to us that we provide reasonable adjustments at no personal expense. Some of our people experience same-sex attraction, and it’s important to us that they be allowed to pursue whatever adult relationships they wish with no harassment or legal restrictions. And some of our people belong to religions which teach the only proper place for a sexual relationship is in a marriage between a man and a woman, and it’s really important to us that parents should be able to pass on those values to their children without schools telling them otherwise!

Do you see the problem?

Deep down, most of us either believe in values which come from inside us, or outside us. Our society is shifting from Christian values to self-defined values. We can’t impose our Christian values on others, but we can ask for a mutual respect where we tolerate other values without being asked to celebrate different values. One of the great challenges for Catholics in our generation is to stand up and require that our British respect for diversity means that traditional moral values must be prized as highly as new liberal values. Doing this in a culture conscious of the need to “be true to myself and develop my beliefs” is even more important.

It’s not enough for us to open our mouths and ask for respect, though. Like the Christians we read about in Acts this evening, we must live our faith in a way which makes others respect us. We should stand out by the way we encourage struggling married couples to stay together and work attentively on their relationship. We should stand out by the way we not only chant pro-life slogans but work to give practical support to children born to reluctant parents of little means. We should stand out by the way we care for elderly relatives rather than rushing to the care home. We should stand out by behaving as generous employers and loyal employees.

Setting such an example will be attractive, but others will not flock to join us immediately. They will have questions about whether Jesus is the one to whom they are to entrust themselves. Is He Alive? Can He be trusted? You can lead people to Jesus, but not overnight.

It struck me as I prepared this sermon that:

  • A scout is someone who finds the way.
  • A guide is someone who shows others the way.
  • Jesus IS the way.

Your task is to develop and be true to your Catholic beliefs, but above all to show Jesus to the people you work with. He is the Way; you are the Guides of Guides. Do this, and you will have the respect of many.

The Risen Lord and the Queen of Peace

Mass for a group of pilgrims in Medjugorje on Easter Monday, at the Cenacolo Community Chapel

Have you not heard? Have you not seen?

This week, we’ve heard a lot about visions and apparitions.

The women in today’s Gospel, and Peter in Acts, claimed to have seen the Risen Jesus, very soon after he was nailed to a Cross and buried.

Visionaries in this place and in others have claimed to meet with his Mother – two thousand years after her life on earth came to an end.

Whatever you think of these claims, they can’t be ‘quite important’ in that English way we can nod at something and park it at the back of our minds. Either they are not important at all, or Jesus and Mary are asking to become two of the most important people in your life.

If you choose to let them in, there’s a cost.

Jesus will ask to be your personal coach. He will settle for nothing less than holiness. That doesn’t mean saying 10,000 prayers every day. It does mean he will challenge you to be the best version of yourself. His coaching plan includes a special diet, mental exercises and practical drill. The diet is that he wants to feed you with His Word and His Body, which are given to you in Mass. The mental exercises are to connect with God through prayer – he taught us the ‘Our Father’. The drill is called ‘loving others as yourself’ – and to do that well he wants to help you love yourself.

Sometimes we look in the mirror and we don’t like what we see. We’re ashamed of who we are. Jesus says ‘I love you just the way you are’ – and he likes what he sees. We’ve already been scouted for his training academy! The holy women went to tell the disciples to ‘go to Galilee’. That was the place Jesus called them so they could be trained. In fact Jesus doesn’t wait for them to go back there, he shows himself to the Eleven that same evening in Jerusalem. But his message through the women is, ‘get ready to be trained to spread the news I am Risen!’

Sometimes we look back on our day and we don’t like what we’ve done. Jesus doesn’t like our bad choices either. But if we say sorry and are resolved to make a different choice in future, he will always forgive us. Peter made a bold move when preaching to the Jews. ‘You had Jesus killed!’ he declares. But it’s not going to be a problem! Jesus will still love them and welcome them if they ask for this. ‘I want to help you to make better choices,’ he says. ‘Let’s go around again.’ That’s his style of coaching!

Sometimes we doubt the good news of Jesus and Mary because of the brokenness of the world around us. People we love get sick and die. Wars and famines and natural disasters keep worrying us in the news headlines. These things are not new – they were around when Jesus walked this earth in person. He was even once asked to comment on a tragedy when a tower collapsed killing a team of builders in a town called Siloam. ‘Was it a punishment from God?’ they asked him. Jesus said, “No!”; in effect he was saying ‘these things happen’ – and as far as we know he didn’t rush off to Siloam to raise the workers from the dead. But we also know he did heal some people as a sign that God was at work in him, and Peter isn’t afraid to preach this. In Jesus we meet the mystery of a God who sometimes gives positive answers to our prayers for healing. How does God choose? I don’t know. But I do know this – if we don’t ask, we don’t get. Not every footballer who calls for the ball gets it. But when the circumstances are right and the midfielder can make a clean pass, the striker sends it home and we experience a moment of glory.

Sometimes we take our eyes off Jesus and Mary because we are upset about someone who has died, or worried about our own mortality. Big mistake! Jesus and Mary come as witnesses that Heaven is for real. This week we’ve heard the claims made in Medjugorje that one of the visionaries was allowed to see her late earthly mother, and that the day after the parish priest Fr Slavko died, the Queen of Peace declared him to be in heaven. We don’t want to lose our loved ones, but we take comfort in the good news that they are not lost but kept safe by God, who knows exactly where they are.

This is Good News! Jesus is not dead – today he can forgive our sins, lift us from our shame and feed us with His Body, but only if we accept his coaching plan.

And then there’s Secret Mary*. No-one knows who she is unless she reveals herself to you. In the last two centuries, the Catholic Church has recognised that the Mother of God has visited the earth in many different places. She comes with the heart of a mother. There’s at least one Mum on this pilgrimage who has left a younger child in England in order to be with us, and I know her heart is torn. How much more so is the heart of the Blessed Mother torn at the thought that we won’t be able to spend eternity with her in heaven? So the Queen of Peace asks her squabbling children to make peace with each other and with God. Only those who forgive and ask forgiveness can be admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven.

So yes, if we let Mary into our lives, there’s a cost to that, too. She will call upon us to love with the heart of a mother. She will ask us to be peacemakers. She tells us that if we pray the rosary, that will help the world to find peace. I don’t know how that works, but I am happy to leave the details to Jesus and Mary. Have you seen the movie, the Karate Kid? The student has to keep cleaning the master’s car. Wax on! Wax off! Wax on! Wax off! Boring. Repetitive. But in the end the student realises that was training for some smart moves. So: Hail Mary. Hail Mary. Boring? Repetitive? Sometimes – but I trust the Queen of Peace Coaching Academy has a very good reason for training us in the right moves.

Have you not heard? Have you not seen?

I’ve heard that the Risen Lord and the Queen of Peace have revealed themselves 2000 years ago and in our own age too. Whatever you think of these claims, they can’t be ‘quite important’. Either they are not important at all, or Jesus and Mary are asking to become two of the most important people in your life. What happens next is up to you.

* ‘Secret Mary’ on this pilgrimage was a ‘Secret Santa’ gift-giving exercise.

A Balkan Easter

This year I am celebrating the dying and rising of Christ not as a parish priest serving my own people in Wales, but as a pilgrim and shepherd assisting at the shrine of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Ah, Bosnia – a country which has suffered much in recent years. Like Israel itself, its geographic position between East and West has made it a convenient buffer between great powers and their vassal states. As Israel stood between Egypt and Babylon, so the dukedom of Hercegovina was able to broker trade between Christendom to the west and the Ottoman Empire to the east; and it was convenient for all the Great Powers after World War II that Yugoslavia should be a non-aligned communist state so that the Warsaw Pact would not site its weapons off the shores of Italy.

For the great Easter Vigil, the parish’s leaders chose four readings from the Old Testament – Creation, the near-sacrifice of Isaac, the Crossing of the Red Sea (which of course may never be omitted on Easter night) and Ezekiel’s lament over fallen Israel (Ezk 36:16-28).

In Ezekiel’s day, Israel had been conquered by foreign powers and the Jewish people scattered throughout the Babylonian empire. The prophet was inspired to understand that God’s people had lost their divinely-granted security because they had not kept God’s law but turned to violence and worshipped idols. But this in turn meant that God’s Chosen People were now exiles and refugees, which didn’t look good for the God who had chosen them! The solution? God would restore his people to the Promised Land and cleanse their hearts so they could become a people of integrity worthy of His Holy Name. The Biblical Books of Ezra and Nehemiah chart this return from exile – but by the time Jesus Christ was born, Israel enjoyed only limited religious autonomy as a province of the Roman Empire.

Fast-forward to the Balkan conflicts of the late 20th Century. Ethnic Croats who claimed to be Roman Catholic, ethnic Serbs who claimed to be Orthodox Christians, and Bosnian Muslims, descendants of locals who had accepted Islam under Ottoman rule, were held together in an uneasy tension by the iron grip of Marshal Tito. The fall of the Iron Curtain and the death of Tito spelled chaos for the uneasy state of Yugoslavia. The Serbian republic, aspiring to maintain a ‘Greater Serbia’, failed to prevent Croatia from breaking away as an independent state. Bosnia was itself a microcosm of the greater conflict with all three factions present in significant numbers within its borders. The West, in the shape of NATO, eventually intervened – but too late to prevent massive loss of life. No honour was done to the name of Christ by the way Catholic and Orthodox agitated and fought for supremacy.

“My great name has been profaned among the nations,” says the Lord, “but for the sake of my great name I will cleanse you and give you a new heart.” In Medjugorje, something remarkable has happened. A centre for peace has been planted in the heart of war. In due course, Mother Church will pronounce on whether we should truly believe that the Queen of Peace has personally revealed herself to local children. But it is already apparent that the message of peace has taken root in this difficult Balkan soil.

I wonder what the villagers of Medjugorje, and the pilgrims from within the former Yugoslavia, heard in these words of Ezekiel? They have known, as I have not, the pain of their own family members fighting and sometimes dying in a bloody conflict. They have lived with the claims that the Queen of Heaven was calling for ‘peace, peace, peace’ before, during and after the war which ravaged their land. They have seen this isolated Herzegovinan cluster of hamlets become a world-renowned shrine where sins are forgiven, lives are changed, and charitable works bless the nation and the world. What works? One need only mention Mary’s Meals (food for schoolchildren in the developing world), Cenacolo (communities of support for recovering addicts) and the local Mother’s Village (for orphans, refugees and others in distress).

Good works are not without their price. Every charity requires financial giving by many, and an investment of love and labour by a few. At the end of the Jubilee Year 1933, the parishioners of Medjugorje agreed to erect a cross on the hill now known as Krizevac – Cross Mountain. One might imagine Our Lord and the Blessed Mother looking down from heaven and choosing a suitable place to bring a message of peace. There would need to be room for the church to expand its facilities to greet the many pilgrims who would come. There would need to be places for spiritual exercises – a lesser hill to honour the mother of God and a great mountain leading to the Holy Cross. The local people, too, would find a small measure of prosperity from the business of welcoming pilgrims – who should receive this blessing? The soils of Hercegovina, where Franciscan missionary priests sustained the faith despite the oppression of the Ottoman Empire over 800 years, perhaps? The same Hercegovina where 20th century Catholics resisted the status that came with embracing Communism by stubbornly persisting in their Catholic faith and practice?

The choice to be faithful to God is a choice that often brings hardship. The Bible contains wonderful stories of salvation (think of Daniel in the lion’s den, followed by Daniel’s story of the three young men thrown into the firey furnace who escape unscathed) but also of sacrifice. Elijah and Jeremiah received no thanks for standing against the rulers of their times. The Books of the Maccabees include stories of heroic sacrifices including the mother and seven sons who refuse to eat pigs’ flesh under pain of death. In our own age we might think of the 21 Coptic Christians beheaded by ISIS or the 7 Tibherine monks of Algeria who knew they risked death by planting their monastery there.

And Abraham was asked to sacrifice Isaac – his only son!

Imagine this from Isaac’s point of view! He discovered himself standing in a long line of people who are sorely tested as part of God’s plan. Zechariah struck dumb, Saul blinded, John the Baptist imprisoned and later beheaded, Mary’s heart pierced by a sword, and with St Joseph fleeing to Egypt as a refugee. It is not so easy to love a God who requires one to be treated thus! And yet all of these came through their trials and are recognised as saints.

We find also another level of meaning in these words from Genesis. Abraham stands as a symbol of God the Father. Isaac is a symbol of the human race, bound by sin. Why would God ask for the ‘only son’ (the entire human race) to be destroyed? Earlier in Genesis, we see the same divine sentiment expressed in the parable of the Flood… humanity is not worthy to live. What can redeem it? A ram, caught in a bush. A sheep, fixed to a tree. A grown-up lamb on a cross of wood. Jesus Christ, God-made-man, innocent and of infinite worth.

God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes in him should inherit eternal life. The Holy Spirit hovered upon the waters of creation. Noah and Moses passed through water to a place of redemption. Ezekiel prophesied cleansing water to renew the heart. Those who would inherit eternal life are invited to take the waters of baptism and renew their commitment on Easter Night.

God did not spare his own son, but allowed him to enter our human existence and suffer – to suffer tiredness, grief, rejection, betrayal, and even death upon the Cross. The water of baptism is not immunity from the sufferings of this world; indeed, it may call the believer to share with Christ a ‘baptism of fire’ which demonstrates love without limit, incarnate once again in space and in time.

We live as pilgrims between hope and fear; the hope of heaven, and the weight of the Cross we must carry on our way. It has been my personal experience that God often allows me to experience exceptional burdens in Lent and great relief in the season of Easter, but perhaps not everyone’s life is so well attuned to the rhythm of the Christian calendar. If you are still living a personal Lent, may the Risen Christ bring you soon to the joys of Easter. Christ is Risen! Risen Indeed! Alleluia!