I’ll Sing a Hymn to Mary

Homily at 3 Churches, for the Solemnity of the Assumption 2019.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord!”

Our Blessed Mother is, first and foremost, a woman of praise. When the Angel Gabriel asked her to be the mother of the Messiah, she praised God with her actions, which humbly said yes. When she visited with Elizabeth, and was honoured as the “mother of the Lord”, her instinct was neither to reject the honour given her, nor to luxuriate in it, but to give glory to God. So today, I think we must ask ourselves two complementary questions. “How can I give honour to Mary? And how can I give glory to God?”

Pope Francis recently wrote a letter to the world’s priests, and he included these words:

How can we speak about gratitude and encouragement without looking to Mary? She, the woman whose heart was pierced, teaches us the praise capable of lifting our gaze to the future and restoring hope to the present. Her entire life was contained in her song of praise. We too are called to sing that song as a promise of future fulfilment.

Mary’s song is a song in honour of God. Sometimes we sing Mary songs at Sunday Mass – but not too often, and that’s appropriate. What are we doing at Mass? We’re giving thanks to God the Father by offering him the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of his beloved Son. Nothing could please Our Father more – and nothing could please our Blessed Mother more, either. St John XXIII is widely quoted as having said, “The Madonna is not pleased when she is put above her son!”

When we do sing to honour Mary, what do we sing? As I Kneel Before You is an act of entrusting our lives to Mary, that she may present us to God. Hail Mary – Gentle Woman takes the familiar Hail Mary prayer and adds affectionate titles, allowing us to come alongside Elizabeth in calling Mary blessed among all women. There are many verses to Immaculate Mary, Our Hearts are On Firebut most of them express prayers for ourselves and for souls in need, explicitly or implicitly commending these intentions to Mary’s own prayers.

You might be familiar with the Latin Salve Regina which asks Mary to walk with us in times of sorrow and lead us to Jesus. Bring Flowers of the Rarest only really makes sense when we sing it May and place a crown of flowers upon an image of our Blessed Mother. I’ll sing a Hymn To Mary only just manages to do what the first line suggests – it’s much more about declaring who Mary is than about asking her for help (and in this case, help to sing a song about her!)

Whenever we sing to Mary, or pray to her, we are walking a tightrope between going too far and ignoring her. Mary has no power of her own. When we pray to her it’s because we trust her to bring our needs perfectly before the throne of God. When we sing to her, we are seeking to honour her without offering the kind of worship which belongs to God alone. Other Christians might ask why we bother to do this at all, but the answer is in today’s Gospel: “All generations will call me blessed,” says Mary. It’s balanced that every Sunday we worship the Father by offering the Body of Jesus, and once a year we all come together to honour Mary.

Some of us might feel more comfortable entrusting our prayers to Our Lady than to Our Lord or Our Father, and that’s OK – as long as, if we’re in the habit of “asking Mary for things”, we remember that she can only give us what she has received from God. But since God has filled her with the fullness of all grace, what she has to share with us is not inconsiderable! We can also talk to Mary, as a child might talk to its mother, and we can hear Pope Francis again, this time rembering how Our Lady appeared to St Juan Diego at Guadalupe:

Whenever I visit a Marian shrine, I like to spend time looking at the Blessed Mother and letting her look at me. I pray for a childlike trust, the trust of the poor and simple who know that their mother is there, and that they have a place in her heart. And in looking at her, to hear once more, like the Indian Juan Diego: “My youngest son, what is the matter? Do not let it disturb your heart. Am I not here, I who have the honour to be your mother?”

We can also learn much by thinking about Mary as a role model. She was an unmarried mother; a Palestinian refugee in Africa; a confident mother at the Wedding at Cana; a strong woman at the foot of the Cross. Pope Francis reminds us:

To contemplate Mary is “to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness. In her, we see that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong, who need not treat others poorly in order to feel important themselves”.

But who are the weak and who are the strong? In her Magnificat, Mary sings of a God who casts down the mighty and lifts up the lowly. St Paul once said that God’s power was made perfect in his weakness; when he was weak, then he was strong. God’s ways, Mary’s ways, are not the ways of the world. When we are strong, let us ask Our Blessed Mother for the grace to yield to God. When we are weak, let us ask her to obtain for us what we need. I’ll give the last words to a traditional hymn:

O bless us, dear Lady,
With blessings from heaven,
And to our petitions
Let answer be given.
Ave, Ave, Ave Maria!
Ave, Ave Maria!


The Things We Haven’t Done

Homily at 3 Churches, for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

One morning, at the start of class, a schoolgirl spoke to her teacher.

Please Sir, can I ask you something? Should a person be punished for something they haven’t done?

“Of course not,” replied the teacher, “No-one should be punished for something they haven’t done.”

“That’s good!” said the girl. “Please Sir, I haven’t done my homework!”

Today’s Gospel starts with a lovely picture of Jesus serving his friends. But then St Peter asks “is this for us or for everyone?” He’s probably not expecting what happens next – Jesus paints a surprising picture of how God treats his “servants”. For those who claim to be disciples, a higher standard is expected. The wicked servant who abuses his master’s trust is dismissed – that’s an image of Hell. The lazy servant who did know what the master expected receives many strokes of the lash – that’s an image of Purgatory. More surprisingly, the one who didn’t know what the master expected, but failed to deliver, is punished. Only lightly, but still punished – by the master who represents God!

Does this mean we’re dealing with an unreasonable God who expects results and deals with us unjustly? No. But there are two things we must remember to avoid reading this parable the wrong way.

The first thing is that the servants were servants. They knew they had a Master. So they knew that something was going be expected of them. The fault of the third servant is that he didn’t try to find out what he should have been doing. This is not a parable for people who’ve never heard of Jesus. This is a parable for disciples – members of the Church who claim they want to follow Jesus and serve God Our Father!

The second important thing is that while human beings judge the outward appearance, God judges the heart. We are judged not on our results but on our choices. Let me offer an example: we know that one of the Ten Commandments requires us to keep the Lord’s Day holy. Mother Church takes that and makes an Obligation, saying we must attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, on pain of serious sin. Now, suppose you wake up on Sunday morning and have flu – or find yourself in sole care of a child who is ill in bed. You want to go to Mass. You feel bad about not being able to go to Mass. In these circumstances, is it possible for you to choose to come to Mass? No. So if that happens, please don’t come to confession because you feel bad about not coming to Mass. Confession is about saying “I made a bad choice and next time that happens I’ll make a better choice” – we call that ‘a firm purpose of amendment’. The sign you need to come to confession is that you can put into words what that better choice would have been. If your body has flu, you have no choice. If you have to care for a sick child at home, you have no choice. When you have no choice, what you have are regrets, not sins. So take your sins to confession but take your regrets straight to God in prayer.

At the end of our lives, we will meet Jesus as our judge. We will see clearly what was expected of us. I suspect that what the Bible calls the “punishment” for the servant who didn’t know what was expected will be the firey embarrassment we experience at realising we have let down our beloved Lord in the task he has chosen specially for each one of us. It’s because of this that we have the practice in the church called an “examination of conscience”. This is when we look at ourselves and ask whether we’ve been doing what our master expects. Now it’s easy to make a list of bad behaviour we should avoid – we can tick off a list of “Thou Shalt Nots” to help with that. Today’s Gospel, however, requires something more challenging: an examination of the good deeds which our Master does expect.

Now, none of us can do everything. We can’t all run a Foodbank, visit 50 housebound parishioners every week, take charge of a pack of Scouts, work overtime so a colleague can get home to the kids and spend 8 nights a week at home with our beloved husband or wife. So it’s important to spend time praying about what good deeds God expects each one of us to do. The key is in the gifts and talents God has already entrusted to us – they are given to us to make the world a better place. We will be most effective when we do those things we are called and gifted to do. This is why, following our big diocesan conference in June, our priests and lay leaders in the diocese are examining a process named “Called and Gifted” which could help us do just this. But it would be premature of me to say more before final plans are made.

At this time of year, as we look forward to the “back to school” season, those of us who are parents or grandparents might face a change in mix of caring duties and gaps in our schedule in a typical week. It’s a good time to ask where we can use of our gifts and talents in the year to come.

There is one thing that only we can do – we who worship in the Catholic Church in this place. We are ambassadors for Christ. We can’t expect anyone else promote this parish. It is our calling to invite the people we meet to ask whether they believe Jesus rose from the dead, and whether it’s possible to meet Jesus through Holy Mass. Today’s Second Reading reminds us that Abraham set out to follow God’s call. The First Reading recalls the first Passover, when the faithful Jews were saved from the angel of death. God protects his faithful people, but expects much from his servants – and it’s our business to find out what God wants us to do.

None of us can do everything, but all of us are expected to use the gifts we’ve been given to do something. The Master is calling us. If we want our entry into heaven to be pure joy and free from punishment, the first step is to pray this Dangerous Prayer – “Here I am Lord, use me as you will!” Remember, he doesn’t want to punish you – but you do have to do your homework!

Leaving a Legacy

Homily at 3 Churches, for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Imagine, for a moment, that you have four grown-up daughters.

  • Angela never married, and has spent the last 20 years looking after you in your own home.
  • Bridie married a teacher, but isn’t able to have any children.
  • Christine married a very wealthy businessman, who is like another son to you. They have two children.
  • Deborah defied your wishes and married a man with a criminal record who you thought was totally unsuitable. They have four children.

Now, it’s time to write your will. What do you do? Deborah’s family has the greatest needs: the children are nearly old enough for university. Christine’s children have all the money they need, but if you leave nothing to them, that will look mean. If you leave the house to Angela, there won’t be much money to donate to the rest of the family – but if you sell the house to give a share to each daughter or a share to each grandchild, where will Angela live?

When it comes to questions of inheritance, our Old Testament lesson has nailed it. You, the person who earned the wealth, will one day die, so inevitably what you now have will go to someone who hasn’t earned it. That’s why it’s a big mistake to ask whether an inheritance is fair. Inheritances are always generous. So when you’re on the other side of things – benefitting, or being left out, from someone else’s will – the only real complaint you can make is that the will-maker was not as generous towards you as you hoped. Now I’ll admit that it’s certainly unfair if someone makes you a verbal promise and doesn’t follow up by writing that into their will – but that’s about breaking their word, which is a different moral issue altogether.

In the twelve years I’ve been a priest, I’ve had innumerable conversations with parishioners whose lives have been ruined by disputes about inheritance. They have expected to receive a certain amount in a will, but either they were left less than they hoped for, or another family member failed to hand over what they ought to have done, or in the absence of written instructions, the person didn’t inherit what they believed they were entitled to.

Now I’m the first to recognise that when you expect to inherit something, it’s easy to daydream. My parents own a house, and when the time comes, its value will probably be split between my brother and myself. Since I don’t have a mortgage, I can imagine paying for a round-the-world holiday, or buying a brand-new car, or sponsoring some expensive charitable project. Yet maybe that won’t happen. Maybe between now and then, the house will have to be sold to pay for care home fees – or a survey might find an old mineshaft under its foundations and make it worthless. So I can dream, but I would be foolish to plan a future based on something I might never receive.

Even Jesus was reluctant to get involved in a property dispute. “Who appointed me your judge?” he asks. In fact, one day Jesus will judge us, because the God He calls Father has appointed him judge over all humanity. But he will judge us on the quality of our generous giving and our goodwill in receiving what is always a pure gift.

Are you angry with a deceased relative for not including you in their will? Let it go. It was never your money in the first place. Pray for their soul!

Are you angry with a living relative for not sharing a portion of their inheritance with you? Let it go. They have had their reward already. Pray for their conversion!

Are you angry because the executor of a will is being slow to give you your inheritance? Let it go. God will allow your portion to come to you at a time when you’ll need it. Love and bless your adversary!

There again, perhaps you’re arguing with other family members because you’ve benefitted the most from someone else’s will. If so, you’ve received an undeserved gift. How much of that gift will you share with your extended family? The Lord who said “Freely you have received, freely give” is also warning you that no amount of money will give you security – the Christian paradox is that only through giving can we truly receive what we need.

Today is also a good day to ask yourself: Have I made a will? If so, does it need to be updated?

Wills are important. It’s only by making a will that you can ensure that your property is used in the way you wish after your death. You don’t need to use a lawyer to write your will, but it’s probably a good idea to do so if there’s a house or land involved. The cheapest way to access a lawyer is to wait until November and find one who is part of the WillAid initiative – instead of paying a legal fee, you make a donation* to one of nine nominated charities. There are two Catholic charities in the mix – the Scottish and Irish counterparts of CAFOD.

If you’re making or updating a will, you might consider leaving a legacy to the Catholic Church. Because the parishes of “3 Churches” are part of a wider charity, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cardiff Trust, it’s important to use the right wording. Saying “I leave the money to the Catholic Church” is too vague, and saying “I leave it to Parish X” is a problem because Parish X isn’t a charity on its own. The Treasurer’s Office can advise you of the right wording, if you need it.

There is no one right answer to the puzzle I set at the start of this sermon, because there are different definitions of “fair”. Is it fair to split everything 4 ways among the daughters? Is it fair to give a double-share to Christine and a quadruple-share to Deborah because of the number of grandchildren?* It would certainly seem unfair to make Angela homeless, but there are ways of leaving property “in trust” so its value can be shared out later. One thing which is clearly unfair is not updating a will when the circumstances it was based on have changed. Our Lord is not going to apportion your will, but he will judge you on the thoughtfulness and generosity with which you settle your affairs. The next step is up to you!

In one of the Cardiff churches where I preached this sermon, a Cardiff solicitor in the congregation pointed out afterwards that English Law would by default assume equal shares to each daughter but takes no account of grandchildren because “they are the children’s responsibility”; his practical experience suggests that leaving grandchildren more than a token amount tends to cause conflict. I hasten to add that nothing in this blog should be taken as formal legal advice! The same lawyer also noted that although there are “suggested donations” associated with WillAid you are not actually obliged to pay a penny to benefit from the service.