1,000 Sheep

Homily at Corpus Christi Coventry for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C – Home Mission Sunday

Someone’s missing. Have a look around you and see if you can work out who.

OK. At the risk of stating the obvious, your Parish Priest is missing. But please God, he’ll be recovered from surgery soon enough. We’re not listing him among the lost yet.

Try the benches close to you. Is there anyone who usually sits there who’s not there today? And if someone is missing, do you know their name? Do you know how to contact them?

Your parish priest is the shepherd of the Corpus Christi flock, but the responsibility for the sheep is not only his. He might not know that a sheep is missing unless you tell him.

Now have a think about your own family. How many of them are Catholics who are missing from Mass? This is where it gets tricky. You see, not all lost sheep WANT to be found. What happens when the shepherd makes a special effort to bring the 100th sheep home, only for it to bolt through the gate again at the first opportunity? So if you know a sheep who doesn’t want to be part of this parish, what can you do?

If some sheep genuinely don’t like what the Catholic Church stands for, you won’t have much success dragging them back. So the best thing you can do for that lost sheep in your family is to gently share your own experiences of how your Catholic faith changes your life for the better. Where does your faith give you hope? Where does it cause you to rejoice? And here I’ll offer you a hint: as long as you follow Jesus, avoid sin, go to confession when you fail, and, take communion regularly, you are guaranteed a place in heaven. Turn away from Our Lord, and you lose that guarantee.

There again, maybe someone in your family feels they;re no longer welcome in Church. There are all sorts of reasons for that. Perhaps someone’s marriage has broken down and they’ve pursued a new relationship but feel like an outlaw. Perhaps a priest, or a member of some congregation, has spoken harshly to them and made them fearful of trying again. Or maybe they’re just plain ashamed of something in their life and feel their face doesn’t fit in church any more.

So consider St Paul. Paul who approved of murder. Paul the persecutor of Christians. Paul who had to eat humble pie when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Paul who knew Jesus was offering mercy and a seat in the Kingdom of Heaven. Paul as a Christian on his own in Damascus could manage. Paul returning to Jerusalem trying to persuade the apostles he was now one of them? That must have felt very difficult.

Let’s make it as easy as possible for the lost sheep to return. Let’s remind the lost members of our families that Pope Francis has asked priests to ‘accompany’ those who feel lost from the Church community – and that there is a place for everyone in these pews.

Have another look around you. Who else is missing? What about people you know who aren’t Catholics? God wants them to be part of his church, too! Why are they missing? Jesus came to rescue the human race, to invite EVERYONE to be part of his church family. Who does Jesus want to see as part of the Catholic Church? EVERYONE! Let’s hear it again – EVERYONE!

One parish priest can’t do that on his own. There are people each of you will come into contact with this week, whom your parish priest will never meet unless you bring them to church. Someone is missing from this church today because you haven’t invited them to come yet.

On average, each Catholic Church or Mass Centre in England serves a community of 20,000 people – of whom 500 to 1500 are Catholics. We don’t need to target members of other Christian Churches (though it’s great when they want to become Catholics too) – but that still leaves well over 10,000 people living in this corner of Coventry who don’t attend any kind of religious worship on Sunday. A few years ago, a survey showed there were 3 million people in the UK who never attend church but would if a friend invited them to come. That means, that within the parish boundaries of Corpus Christi, in this suburb of Coventry, there are one thousand people who never go to Church – but would, if you invited them. What kind of Catholic, then, knows that there are 1,000 lost sheep in their own community but never invites them to come to Church? What kind of Catholic knows that their church offers a secure path to heaven but doesn’t offer that to their friends?

I know it’s not easy talking about our faith to people who don’t share it. So I want to give a special shout-out to those among you who are willing to talk about faith. Some of you have been catechists to children preparing for Confirmation or First Communion – thank you! Some of you have brought adults to church and walked with them as they have prepared to become Catholic – thank you! Many of you have tried to share faith with your own children and grandchildren and known the heartache of the message not being received – thank you for doing your best!

Not every sheep is ready to be brought home to the Catholic Church. So let’s do our best to find the ones that are. Today’s shepherd left the 99 to find the one. But you, my friends, leave your worries about the ones determined to stray and search for the 1,000 who are willing to come home. Look around you. Who’s missing? One thousand potential members of this church who are among your neighbours, just waiting to be asked!

Showing my workings:

The total population of England & Wales in 2011 was 56.101 million; there were 2882 churches or Mass centres in England & Wales. Assuming an even spread among the general population, each Mass centre serves 19,466 citizens – roughly 20,000.

A 2007 Tearfund survey of Churchgoing in the UK found that 3 million people would go to church ‘if someone invited them’. The original report is no longer available but the Church Times summary suggests this is a result for the whole UK. 

The UK population in 2005 was 60,413,000 – the difference to 2007 will be small so 3 million ‘open’ citizens equates to 5% of the general population.

Now to come up with a ballpark figure. We acknowledge that the years don’t sync, so there will be some error. Secularisation may have hardened attitudes between 2007 and 2019, but some Catholic Mass Centres will have closed. So we can still say that roughly 5% of the general population, or 1,000 citizens, will be open to being invited to each Catholic Church in England & Wales.