Blessed Beyond the Curse

Homily at Sion Community for the close of the 2019 Core Members’ Retreat on 16 December 2019.

Before the First Reading:

Today, we are going to hear a prophecy by Balaam son of Beor. But who was Balaam, and when was he prophesying?

When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, they camped in the desert south of the promised land. About 38 years after they left Egypt, they decided to enter Canaan from the north. This meant they would have to pass through the lands of the Ammonites in Edom and then the Kingdom of Bashan, using the travel route known as the King’s Highway (on the map shown, the solid black line running parallel to the River Jordan). They asked for safe passage, but the local kings were not comfortable with half a million refugees – or an invading army – passing through their territory. (Think of what happens today when thousands of migrants want to pass through Mexico on the way to the USA, or a military jet wants to refuel in a third-party country on the way to a strike.)

The Israelites took the highway anyway. Sihon, King of the Ammonites came with his army to stop them – but the Israelites won, and occupied the northern part of Moab, the plains (shaded orange in the second map). They went further north and Og, the King of Bashan came with his army. He too was defeated and the Israelites occupied Bashan (shaded purple). They were able to cross into the Holy Land and camp on the east side of the River Jordan (yellow circle).

Balak, king of the southern part of Moab, calls upon the most powerful prophet he knows, Balaam son of Beor, to come and curse Israel. Balaam is not an Israelite, but the Bible tells us his gift of prophecy comes from the God of Israel. So Balaam is taken by King Balak to various high places (red triangle), where perhaps they can see the Israelites camped on the far side of the Jordan, and instructed to curse them. Here’s what happened next…  (Numbers 24:2-7, 15-17a)


Lord, make me know your ways!

It’s not easy, coming out of a wilderness.

Today we stand on a threshold. The first part of Advent, up to December 16, looks forward to the Second Coming, and the Gospels ask us to recognise who Jesus really is. Tomorrow we enter Advent II, when the Gospels will recall how Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, were prepared for the First Coming.

Today we stand on a threshold. We’re about to exit our retreat, and will soon exit community living for three weeks. Until we gather again in January, we will have to take more personal responsibility for our life of prayer and missionary discipleship.

Today we stand on a threshold. The Israelites are about to exit the wilderness and enter the Promised Land. Balaam was asked to curse Israel, but the only words the Lord would allow him to speak were blessings. He spoke of a King in the distant future. Now, it would be 400 years before David sat on the throne of Israel, and another thousand years after that to the birth of Christ, so Balaam was a ‘far-seeing’ prophet indeed. Like the Magi, he was not an Israelite yet he was given a glimpse of the Messiah!

What actually happened to the Israelites after Balaam blessed them?

They did not stay in the Promised Land, but camped in the plains of Moab. There, many of the Jewish men were tempted by the local women and invited to worship in the local temples. For these crimes, many Israelites were executed.

Some of the tribes asked if they could simply stay living in Moab and Bashan. Moses said that all the fighting men would have to help take the Promised Land, but those tribes could leave their families there and return to live there when the fighting was done.

Sometimes, it seems to me like the Church at large is living in Moab.

At best, the Church in Moab makes occasional visits to the battlefield, with moments of intense prayer, but mostly dwells in the comfortable territory of social work, youth work, fundraising and building maintenance. These things are easy to do. Why bother crossing to the land of Jesus when it’s comfortable in Moab? The Church in Moab settles for maintenance, not mission. (But Ruth left Moab and dedicated herself to the God of Israel.)

At worst, the Church in Moab is tempted astray by the surrounding world. Reiki and reflexology in retreat centres? Yoga in parish halls? And when does compassion and understanding for those struggling with their sexual identity or failed relationships need to give way to reaffirmation of moral boundaries?

(Not included in the sermon as delivered, for brevity.)

Eventually, under Joshua’s leadership, Israel does enter the Promised Land.

Balaam prophesied about a distant future. I am going to attempt the same – the kind of prophesy not based on a revelation from beyond time, but from reading the signs of the times.

Can we imagine what the Catholic Church will be like in Britain, in Europe, in the year 2050?

I can imagine a future where the Church has been forced underground, as it was in the days of Henry VIII. Perhaps Governments will have made it illegal for a religious organisation to exclude women from any of its leadership positions – or at least to exclude a woman who insists she is really a man. Perhaps it will be a hate crime to teach that abortion is wrong in all circumstances. Perhaps it will be against the law for a priest to guarantee total confidentiality to anyone who speaks to him under the seal of confession.

Even if the law still respects religious organisations’ right to do their own thing behind closed doors, state-funded schools might not be allowed to give time to religious activities or promoting the Catholic understanding of healthy sexuality.

Maybe the law of the land will not have come down so heavily on churches – but the law of economics will. If our congregations continue to shrink at their current rate, many of our church buildings will be closed, and we will be worshipping in hired rooms in school halls or leisure centres.

I take no pleasure in being a prophet of doom, but I am taking my example from mother Church herself. In articles 675 and 677 of the Catechism, she says this:

Before Christ will come again, the Church must pass through a final trial. This will shake the faith of many believers.

The trial will be some kind of rejection of God’s truth in the name of solving humanity’s problems.

The Church will enter the glory of the kingdom only through this final Passover, when she will follow her Lord in his death and Resurrection.

Why does the Church say such things? She is drawing from the words of Our Lord himself, who said that even God’s chosen servants will be deceived ‘if such a thing is possible’. In times of confusion we must make our own the response to today’s psalm: Lord, make me know your ways.

Friends, I don’t know whether the final trial of the Church is near at hand, or far away. Many say we are already living in a post-truth society. If you believe you should have had a different kind of body, or if President Trump wishes something had happened differently, all you need to do is keep proclaiming the untruth until people start treating it as a fact.

Some worry that Pope Francis has already brought us to the final apostasy, because he has compromised on truth by his approach to divorce and remarriage. In fact, it seems to me that he has been careful not to CHANGE church teaching, in fact refusing to set down new norms and precedents, but instead has tried to draw attention to how we need to bridge the gap between the messy reality of human life and and the clear-cut statements of Scripture and Canon Law.

Pope Francis calls for discernment. What’s another name for discernment? “Lord, make me know your ways!”

As long as it is possible to follow the Vicar of Christ in a way in keeping with what has been revealed, we must do that. But there will always be a strand in the church which rightly questions innovation because our own teaching says one day Mother Church will fall into apostasy, and even many of her preachers and scholars will be deceived! So a good dose of self-criticism is also healthy! But the Catechism, drawing on Scripture, also says that the final trial will happen when Christ has been recognised by ‘all Israel’. Now it is true that Messianic Judaism is a reality which didn’t exist 50 years ago, but it would be too big a stretch to say that ‘all Israel’ has come to acknowledge Jesus as Lord. Among Jews, Jesus as controversial today as he was in his own lifetime!

Lord, make me know your ways!

In today’s Gospel, too, Jesus – like Pope Francis – avoids giving a direct answer to a question. He knows very well that if his critics are going to embrace the truth, if they are capable of a conversion of heart, they have to weigh up the arguments before them at their own pace, free of pressure. So he answers them with questions they have to pause to ponder and process.

We can do the same thing. We have a Gospel to proclaim, but sometimes the best way to help others hear it is to ask them the right questions. Questions like these:

  • If anyone can choose to be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’, how can we know what a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ is in the first place?
  • Do I have human rights because I can survive without the support of another person or because I am human?
  • How can we find out whether Jesus wanted women to preside and speak his words when his followers gathered to break bread?
  • Do you want to live in a society where a vulnerable person can be given the assurance of absolute confidentiality by someone who doesn’t know what they’re about to say?
  • Will accompaniment and discernment cause a person to disregard Christ’s teaching, or come to appreciate it?

We are now leaving the wilderness and entering the very place where Christ calls us to be disciples – the world of men and women, friends and enemies. This is the place, this is the time, where each one of us is personally called by Jesus to proclaim his Gospel. Whether we face a great apostasy or merely a chastised church, Christ is sending us out to proclaim his love and mercy. Let us keep praying, persevere unshaken, and seek His presence. Lord, make us know your ways!

The Enemy of Israel is worried. God’s Chosen People are coming out of the wilderness, and God will not allow us to be cursed. Let us cling to Balaam’s prophecy. I leave you with the words of St Peter:

We did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power… We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. No prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things – prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.

2 Peter 1:16-21 (abridged and rearranged)

A star WILL rise for us from Judah. Come, Lord Jesus! Marana tha!

(Recommended reflection music: Edge of the Age, by the Maltfriscans!)

Sex without Dæmons: the true teaching of the Catholic Church

Why should we sever children from their dæmons? Because at puberty dæmons bring troublesome thoughts and feelings! The Dust which settles on the dæmons condemns us to the tyranny of sin, guilt and regret!

Phrases from Episode 6 of His Dark Materials – BBC/HBO – broadcast 8 December 2019

It’s the old, old story. Religion says that sex is bad! Sexual thoughts are best avoided so that no-one should be led astray by lust. Philip Pullman’s Magisterium – that chilling organisation combining the worst aspects of the Protestant Puritans and the Catholic Inquisition – wants to make sure no human ever has a lustful thought again. The logical conclusion, if an unhappy one for the future of the human race, is that children should never be allowed to grow up, and certainly not desire sex. If the price is that each and every person becomes a soulless automaton, then so be it… but who then will operate the dæemon-severing machines for the next generation?

Instead of the old, old story let me tell you a new one, a story you might not have heard a Catholic priest tell before. Are you sitting comfortably? Good! Then I’ll begin! The short version goes like this:

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, an advanced ape became the first living being to consciously realise that s/he was becoming sexually aroused. Our first parent missed out on receiving, and passing on to us, the divine gift of conscious control over our sexual and other appetites, because they failed to accept God’s offer of being Lord over their sense of Right and Wrong. Today, that creature’s descendants are invited to enjoy and celebrate the gift of sexual arousal within heaven-blessed marriages, and to shrug off the sense of shame which falls upon them when they experience unbidden attraction at inappropriate moments.

If that doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because we’re become used to an ancient telling of the Catholic faith, which goes like this:

Once upon a time, God created perfect human beings. Their willpower was supreme over all aspects of their bodies. No human being would ever become sexually aroused unless two of them decided it was time to make a baby together, and then they would simply choose to become aroused, and engage in the conjugal embrace. They took ownership of their fair share of what the Earth produced and ate exactly the right quantity of food, knowing what is best for their bodies. But then Eve, and by her urging, Adam, broke God’s Law. As a punishment they were cursed with concupiscence – from that day onwards, human beings would experience unwanted sexual arousal in the presence of beauty, irascible anger, covetous desire for material objects, and gluttonous greed for food beyond what the human body needs to sustain itself. The cosmic consequence of their sin was that death and corruption entered the world, for until that moment, no living being had ever died.

The Catholic Church proposes that the above account is fundamentally true, but must be understood as using figurative language. The Church does not prescribe verse-by-verse whether statements in Genesis 1-11 are factual or metaphorical, but does say that science should explore truth using its rightful autonomy to find factual answers to testable questions. The best scientific evidence available points to a cycle of birth and death of plants, animals and microorganisms stretching more than three billion years before the first mammals existed. Whatever the symbolism of the story of the Fall, it’s not an explanation of how biological death entered the world. It might, however, be a revelation about miraculous gifts of longevity and self-control God was willing to embed in each human soul, but which the first humans forfeited by their free choice. That being the case, I think it’s time to tell a new story.

The Fall (as told by a Catholic scientist)

For as long as there have been distinct sexes among animals, evolution has ensured that there are mechanisms to bring breeding pairs together. Attraction and courtship are responsible for many beautiful sights and sounds in the animal kingdom; in other species, a primal instinct may urge a creature to force himself, or herself, upon an unwilling mate, occasionally resulting in the death or devouring of the unwilling parter!

Millions of years ago, the age-old process of evolution resulted in the first proto-humans with brains not unlike ours. These more powerful brains were able to think and reason using rudimentary language. The power of introspection allowed these creatures to realise that they were becoming sexually attracted or aroused, requiring them to accept or reject the course of action urged upon them by their baser instincts.

Together with the ability to think in terms of Right and Wrong came the gift of an immortal soul. These creatures were no longer doomed to return to the dust of the earth, but rather would have their essence preserved by God for a future day of bodily re-creation. It was God’s intention to endow each new person with two preternatural gifts: first, that of diminishing to insignificance their bodily appetites for sex, food or other material pleasures; and secondly, freedom from bodily death.

The very first ensouled humans, however, failed a significant test. This was not a trial of their bodily appetites, suppressed by grace, but of their intellectual freedom to choose. Were they willing to accept that God would be the author of Right and Wrong? The symbol of this test is an arbitrary tree, singled out by God from the others in the garden as the sole bearer of verboten fruit. Not because it was especially luscious, but because there was no obvious reason to refuse its goodness, our first parents chose to eat the fruit and thereby failed the test. (This is a symbol of some actual moral trial, the details of which are lost to us in prehistory, but where our first parents freely and wilfully failed to heed God’s directives, made sufficiently clear by their nascent conscience.) In return, God withheld from their offspring the preternatural gifts which would have forestalled death and suppressed the concupiscence which is a natural part of the animal kingdom.

Ever since that day, the human race has inherited what has come to be know as ‘original sin’ but would be better labelled ‘the heritage of our sinful origin’. Every newly conceived child, save for the Virgin Mary in her mother’s womb, and Jesus Christ in Mary’s, receives the natural burden of concupiscence which is part of our animal nature. The Catholic Church has long feared that original sin could have been sufficient reason to prevent the soul of a deceased infant from entering heaven, and for centuries entreated parents to baptise the newborn as soon as possible; in the 21st Century, however, we have the assurance of Pope Benedict XVI that the Bible does not in fact affirm this doom, and we should rather hope in the goodness of God when it comes to the souls of the innocent.

God’s friends on earthly slowly learned of the Almighty’s desire for faithfulness in their sexual relationships. Jacob, renamed Israel by a mighty angel, was blessed to father the Jewish nation through two wives and two concubines. Moses gave a law to the Israelites setting out how they were to manage divorce, yet the later prophet Malachi declares that God “hates divorce”. St Paul allowed a new Christian to be parted from an unbelieving spouse for the sake of being paired with a believer. But Jesus Christ insisted that to take a new partner, once a marital bond existed, was an act of adultery contrary to God’s will for his faithful people. It was also the clear understanding of the first Christian leaders that God’s plan was strict monogamy – nowhere is this spelled out explicitly in the Christian Bible, but it is another implication of Jesus quoting Genesis that a man should be united with his (singular) wife.

Throughout human history, men and women have been burdened by the full animal reality of sexual arousal. All people of goodwill at least accept the sexual intercourse is not appropriate without consent, and will likely feel ashamed when their emotions or sexual organs involuntarily respond to the presence of an attractive yet inappropriate person. Not a few have fallen into the pitfall of believing that arousal is sinful even within marriage – a teaching with St John Paul II strongly refuted in his corpus of writings known as Theology of the Body. In the early 400s, St Augustine of Hippo offered his scholarly opinion that there was something lacking when a married couple celebrated the conjugal act without the desire to beget a child. It took until the 1980s for a Pope to affirm that it was right and proper for a married couple to enjoy sexual intimacy, for the sake of deepening their mutual relationship, even when they knew they were temporarily or permanently infertile.

Catholics today can rejoice in the gift of their sexuality, and be relaxed about the fact that arousal happens. It is part of our animal heritage, and we inherit it for that reason. We will be judged not on what arouses us but on how we respond to this reality, accepting it as a gift with the potential to bring great joy. All people of goodwill must surely recognise that there are many occasions when desires should not be acted upon: where there is no consent, or even no possibility of mature consent; where the action would break a solemn promise or harm an existing relationship. The Catholic Church goes further in its understanding of other circumstances where God asks us not to pursue our animal instincts but declares the right context to be within the security of a marriage blessed by God.

This story is consistent with the “God who can, but doesn’t always”. Just as God has the power to grant miraculous healings but does not do so in answer to every prayer, so God also has the power to shield every human from concupiscence but has not used it save in the case of Adam and Eve, Blessed Mary and Christ Jesus. Since empirical evidence rules out a God who always grants these boons, the only remaining options are the Sometimes God, or no god at all.

Why should we sever children from their dæmons? Because at puberty dæmons bring troublesome thoughts and feelings!

Philip Pullman got one important thing right. The true source of these troublesome thoughts and feelings is our ‘animal nature’, the biology we share with other mammals. Whisper it quietly, but the true Catholic Church, far from Pullman’s Magisterium, does not want to sever humans from their animal nature; in the right context, it blesses them to enjoy being very animal indeed!

A postscript

The official teaching of the Catholic Church is that the story of the Fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language to tell the story of something that happened at the beginning of human history. I have used the same figurative language above to speak of our ‘first parents’ to make my narrative easily consistent with Genesis; but there is a tension which must be acknowledged with the narrative in Romans which contrasts Christ with the first Adam without mentioning Eve. I have argued elsewhere that there is a way to reconcile evolutionary biology with Catholic teaching which strictly requires a singular original sinner. You could rewrite the account above in terms of ‘Adam alone’ rather than ‘Adam and Eve’ for what I believe would be strict historical accuracy; but above I have employed the figurative language of Genesis 3 for my own purposes too. My aim is to be no more confusing than the Word of God!

The Rosa Mystica Devotions

Image result for pierina gilli

The Context

The Rosa Mystica devotions are a series of spiritual exercises proposed by the Italian laywoman Pierina Gilli (1911-1991). They honour the Virgin Mary under the title “Mystical Rose – Mother of the Church” and have a special concern to invoke God’s blessing and protection for priests and members of religious orders. On 7 December 2019, the Diocese of Brescia inaugurated a diocesan sanctuary where these devotions take place regularly.

Signorina Gilli claimed that the inspiration for these devotions came from apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1947 and 1966. Nothing in her claims is contrary to the Catholic Faith, but successive Bishops of Brescia have sought to downplay attention to her claims, and have found no positive reason to believe she received a heavenly visitation. Nevertheless, the proposed devotion to Maria Rosa Mystica has quietly spread among Catholics across the world.

The Catholic Church judges claims of apparitions in two ways: the content of the messages, and the spiritual fruits which flow from them. Bishop Tremolda of Brescia acknowledged in 2019 that the fruits were ‘no less important’ than the contents in reaching a final judgment. For this reason, on the eve of the Immaculate Conception in 2019, he saw fit to inaugurate a diocesan sanctuary where pilgrims can be welcomed and the fruits monitored. The Diocese of Brescia and the Holy See will continue to review Signorina Gilli’s claims; in the meantime the official policy is that in the course of promoting the devotions, no reference should be made to Pierina Gilli’s alleged apparitions.

Since it is impossible to explain the Rosa Mystica Devotions without making some reference to the claimed apparitions, what follows should be read as coming from Signorina Gilli’s imagination without taking a position on whether these thoughts were prompted by the Virgin Mary – the same stance being taken by the official Foundation managing the shrine.

Image result for rosa mystica swords

The Imagery

Pierina’s initial meditations were on the sorrows which Our Lady experiences because of the failings of representatives of the Church. She imagined Our Lady robed in purple with three swords piercing her breast. The first was the pain caused by those priests and religious who abandon their vocation. The second sword represented priests, monks, and nuns who live in deadly sin. The third sword was a symbol of priests and religious who while giving up their vocation, often lose also their faith, and become enemies of the Church. She understood that she was to offer prayer and sacrifice for these souls and practice penitence for her own sins.

This sorrowful image soon gave way to what has become the popular image of the Rosa Mystica – Our Lady veiled in white with three roses upon her breast. The white rose represents our call to pray. The red rose represents the sacrifices we can make in atonement for the sins of others, especially clergy and religious. The golden rose represents penitence – our own willingness to examine our lives and repent of our sins.

The Exercises

Pierina suggested that religious communities and secular priests should mark the thirteenth day of each month as a “Day of Mary”, and these prayers would bear fruit by invoking Mary’s special protection, an increase of spiritual vocations, few betrayed vocations, and great sanctity among the servants of God. The suggested forms of prayer are not radical – Holy Mass, Holy Communion, the rosary and an hour of Eucharistic Adoration. The first twelve days of the month could be days of preparation for this.

No specific contents are suggested either for the preparatory prayers or for the 13th day itself, but when there are no obligatory observances in the Church’s calendar, votive Masses and Offices of Our Lady can be offered. The 13th is also, of course, the day of the month on which Our Lady of Fatima appeared to the shepherd children between May and October 1917.

The 13th July each year could be kept by religious communities and by clergy as Rosa Mystica Day to celebrate Our Lady under this title and invoke God’s protection on their own particular vocation. (There is no Votive Mass in the Roman Missal or the additional collection of Marian Masses invoking Mary by this title so some suitable Marian Mass from the existing collection should be chosen. Alternatively, given Pierina spoke of “Mytical Rose – Mother of the Church” the votive Mass of Mary, Mother of the Church could be used.)

The 13th October each year could be kept as special day when the faithful everywhere could receive Holy Communion as an act of penance and reparation for the sins of the Church. The votive Mass ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ might be particularly appropriate.

Only one proposal by Pierina does not involve the 13th day of any month. She proposes that the hour commencing at noon on December 8th, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, should be kept as an “Hour of Grace” marked by prayers and penance. The hour could begin by praying the 51st Psalm three times while holding one’s arms outstretched. Each person keeping the hour is free to complete the hour with any other way of praying they see fit.

A leaflet is available for those who wish to practice these devotions.

A Walk Through the Citadels

Homily at Sion Community for the 35th Anniversary of the Foundation on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

Around 50 years before Christ died on Calvary, something new began in the womb of St Anne. Quietly, unheralded, a girl came into being, receiving an extraordinary gift from God. In common with all of God’s chosen people, she had been chosen to be one of those who would put her hope in Christ. Uniquely, she was preserved from all the consequences of the sin of our first parents.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

Exactly 35 years ago, Fr Pat Lynch received the name “Sion Community” as a word which would give shape to his desire to spread the Gospel. Quietly, unheralded, he sought out others to receive this name and share his vision. Like St Anne’s pregnancy, it took nine months to come to birth before a team of missionaries was ready to start work in August 1985.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

St Anne’s child grew up to become the young woman of Nazareth who give her total “Yes” to an angel. This one word launched her on an unexpected adventure which led to her giving birth while still a virgin, and nursing her infant child on an unwelcome flight to Egypt.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

Imagine a dairy, a place for milking cows! Sion Community found its first headquarters in a converted dairy belonging to missionary sisters in Birmingham. Perhaps there is a hidden meaning in our infancy being in a place whose first mission had been milk.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

In due course, the Holy Family were able to return to Nazareth. There St Joseph was able to resume his trade as a carpenter and teach the growing Christ-child the ways of working wood.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

Imagine a sawmill, a place for working wood! In 1990, we were able to move into this building – Michael Coughlan will famously tell you the story about the day he helped pick up the key. In God’s providence, our address is Sawyers’ Hall Lane. In some ways, this house is a sawmill of the soul: we learn from one another and are shaped to be more effective missionaries. It reminds me of the prophecy of Haggai, that we must fetch wood from high places and rebuild God’s house. We, who worship the son of the carpenter, would do well to meditate on what it means to live in the hall for sawyers!

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

In the fullness of time, Our Lord left his mother’s house and called a group of disciples to follow him, drawing some of them into his inner circle so he could teach and mould them in the art of sharing the Gospel. At times they ministered to crowds; at other times, they withdrew into the wilderness to be alone with Our Lord.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

Imagine a pottery, a place where clay is shaped, hardened, and made to look beautiful. Nine years ago, we acquired a house of formation away from the crowd. Our house is the Ark of the Covenant, a title of Mary as shelter of the incarnate Word. While Our Lord had to withdraw from his mother’s house to a desert place to find quiet time, we at least can find a place of rest in the house of our mother. In God’s providence, our Coventry house is on Potters Green Road.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

When Our Lord was dying upon the cross, he entrusted his beloved disciple – and so each one of us who embrace that name – to his mother. All of us, as servants of Christ, therefore ‘dwell in the house of Mary’. Why does it matter that Our Lady is the Immaculate Conception? When she appeared to St Catherine Labouré to remind us to ask daily for the graces we need, we were invited to call upon “Mary, conceived without sin.” When she appeared at Lourdes to invite many to come to the healing spring, she identified herself: “I am the Immaculate Conception”. There is a deep and mysterious link between Our Lady’s freedom from all stain of sin, and her ability to be a channel of grace. Today is a day for us to ask anew for all the graces we need to continue the work of Sion Community in the year to come.

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

Today we stand 35 years forward from the day of our community’s conception. It is not for me to prophesy what will happen next in our journey, though for the last year we have been meditating on an image of a potter watering and centering his material.

I do know that in the months to come, on the Solemnity of the Annunciation, the bishops of England will rededicate the people of England to Our Lady, recalling how King Richard II entrusted England as the ‘dowry of Mary‘ in 1381.

I do know that in the next three months, starting with a pastoral letter on 1 January, the people of England will be asked to look forward to this day, when we rejoice that the Word of God took flesh among us.

I do know that all the Catholics of England will be asked to make a personal re-dedication of their lives to Jesus through Mary next March, preparing through 33 days of prayer.

I do know that all of this takes place in the year which our bishops have dedicated to the “God Who Speaks” and when Pope Francis will celebrate the first universal Sunday of the Word of God.

Today, we look back and we look forward. We look back and rejoice that for 35 years, Sion Community has moved from conception to birth to maturity. We were conceived together with the Mother of God, Like her, we have a mission to bring to birth the Word of God. Our journey has taken us through a dairy, a sawmill and a pottery. Members have joined and members have moved on, but our community, and our name, remain.

We look forward to a new season when the Catholic Church seems wounded and weak, but when we have confidence that the Lord will not abandon his faithful people. What was true in St Paul’s day is true in our day:

And it is in him that we were claimed as God’s own, chosen from the beginning, under the predetermined plan of the one who guides all things as he decides by his own will; chosen to be, for his greater glory, the people who would put their hopes in Christ.

Ephesians 1:11-12

Behold! I am doing a new thing!

The same God who has been with us on our journey will call us forward to new challenges. Pope Leo XIII, a great friend of the Holy Spirit, once said “When England returns to Walsingham, Our Lady will return to England”. Our Bishops are calling us to do just that in the coming Spring. The latest Goodnews magazine includes a prophecy from a Brazilian leader suggesting that Our Lady will take back the throne of England and many will return to the Lord. I cannot say what all of this means for the year to come, but I know that we are on the Lord’s side.

To the best of my ability, I have used this sermon to “Walk about Sion, go around her, number her towers, consider well her ramparts, go through her citadels”. Her towers, our members, are sitting among you this evening. Her ramparts are as strong as the prayers that our members and benefactors offer up day by day, week by week, and especially on Fridays. I have gone through her citadels and discovered a dairy, a sawmill and a pottery, places of good and Godly work. Having done this we can be confident that we may tell the next generation of the One who is God, our God forever and ever. He is ever ancient and ever new, always doing a new thing and doing so through us, his faithful disciples. This is Our God! He will guide us forever and ever! Amen!

The Challenge to Change

Homily at the Sion Community Family Day for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2019.

Today, I want to talk about someone whose lifestyle seems a bit extreme, and whose message makes us feel uncomfortable. Someone we might admire from a distance but might not want to get too close to. Someone people in authority either criticise, or want to be seen alongside.

I’m talking, of course, about Greta Thunberg.

In case you need a reminder, she’s a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who’s become the figurehead of the climate strike movement – older school pupils protesting that politicians and responsible adults need to act quickly for the good of our planet. Because of her deeply-held principles she is a vegan and refuses to travel by highly-polluting vehicles like aeroplanes or ocean-going ferries. This became a problem when she was invited to address the United Nations in New York, until the crew of a yacht volunteered to sail her across the Atlantic. She’s just arrived in Spain, after another yacht trip – a climate conference which was supposed to be in Chile was moved to Europe at short notice!

Someone like Greta Thunberg provokes strong reactions, but different people react in different ways.

“You’re just wrong.” Does Greta really understand what’s going on with our planet? Some say there’s simply not enough evidence for climate change driven by human use of coal, oil and gas. As a scientist, I know that with something as complex as the climate, we might never be able to prove that our actions are responsible beyond reasonable doubt – but I think we can say that on the balance of probabilities, if we go on as we are, our only planet will be in big trouble during my lifetime. 

“I don’t want to admit you’re right.” That’s called denial. If Greta is right, we all need to make significant lifestyle changes, eating less meat, consuming less energy, living a more simple life. These things aren’t easy. And when someone’s asking you to do something difficult, it’s a natural reaction to attack the messenger. For instance, although Greta has crossed the Atlantic twice now by wind-power alone, some of the crew members of her yachts, there and back, had to fly into position to make it possible. Is that ideal? No, but there isn’t a scheduled yacht service offering regular carbon-free ocean crossings. It’s easy to criticise – but if that’s just a way of avoiding the real issue, don’t!

“I admire you.” It’s easy – indeed, many people would say it’s fashionable – to jump on Greta’s bandwagon. It’s easy to re-tweet her messages and even turn out on a climate protest waving placards. But we can fall into the trap of saying it’s somebody else’s problem. Yes, we’d like our politicians to ‘do something about it’. And there are some things they can do. They can spend our tax money on research into green energy and building more wind turbines, tidal lagoons and solar farms. They can regulate waste so that we recycle more and buy fewer carrier bags or disposable cups. These things will help in the long term. But beyond that, what do we expect our politicians to do? They could pass laws rationing our meat supply, and cutting off our electricity for 8 hours a day. Would we vote for that?

“I’m with you.” Ultimately, Greta will only be successful if she persuades us to make big changes in our lifestyle. Greta’s own mother, an international opera singer, sacrificed her lifestyle – no more flying – when her daughter asked, “Why are you stealing my future?” The Bishop of Salford, John Arnold, has just made a video where he talks about his own lifestyle changes: Don’t fly unless it’s unavoidable. Share lifts and use public transport when possible. Turn off electrical items which are on standby. Turn the temperature down and wear an extra layer! CAFOD (and Pope Francis) would add that we should shop for food grown locally; reduce – reuse – recycle; and simply avoid buying things we don’t need!

Greta Thunberg isn’t the only possible answer to my question. St John the Baptist fits the bill as well. Greta’s message is “Change your behaviour! The climate catastrophe is close at hand!” – and John the Baptist came declaring “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand!” Both of them are iconic campaigners for change – and both are wonderfully vague about what kind of change they actually want to see in our lives.

We can react to John the Baptist – and to the message of Jesus, which is what he’s all about – in exactly the same way people react to Greta. Some refuse to accept that Christian moral values have any relevance except for Christians who want to live by them. Others might point to the failings of the Church as an institution, or of individual Christians, to say that they’re off the hook. We might renew our Baptismal Promises and say we’re going to live like Christians, but then not think about what that means in practice. Or we could surrender and simply say to God: “Here I am! What change do you want in my life today?”

Advent isn’t Lent. Lent is all about identifying sin in our lives, as a preparation for the wonderful Easter gift of forgiveness. Advent’s something else. Perhaps Advent is the season which challenges us to ask not “What am I doing wrong?” but “What could I do better?” – after all, its climax is Christmas, the season of gift-giving and goodwill to all people. “Repent” doesn’t just mean “Stop sinning.” It also means “Turn your life around. Total change!” Isaiah presents us with images of the perfect Servant of God and of harmony in creation. St Paul’s letter to the Romans asks us to “think with one mind”. And since we’ve come together for a Family Day, let’s do just that.

Greta’s family decided together to make certain lifestyle changes. Jesus called a band of disciples together to learn to be his followers. In our families, and in our Sion Community houses, we can help each other, and hold each other accountable to the standards we know we ought to keep. So right now I’m going to pass everyone a slip of paper to write down at least one thing you could do. It doesn’t have to be about the environment – Jesus calls us to other good works, too! I’m going to give you some headings on the screen to help you think:

  • How could you pray together as a family?
  • What could you do to show appreciation for one another within your household?
  • How could you read the Bible together or study something about our Faith?
  • What could you do to bless your neighbour – and by that I mean someone you naturally come into contact with regularly, it doesn’t have to be the family next door.
  • What could you do to live a greener lifestyle?
  • Which good causes might you support financially next year?

I’m going to give you a few minutes now to think and pray about one thing you could start doing, either tomorrow or after Christmas. When you’ve written something on your sheet, I want you to give it to another member of your family or Sion Community household. Later today, or when you get home, compare your notes. Is there something positive we can help each other to do? As the saying goes: “We must all hang together, or we will all hang separately!” St John the Baptist warned us that we must change our behaviour because God’s Kingdom is close – a promise that we can make earth a little more like heaven, and a warning that God will be checking up on us soon!

Our Lady, Rosa Mystica

I’ve long been fond of the devotion to Our Lady under the title, Rosa Mystica. The beautiful image of Our Lady with red, white and golden roses upon her breast is attributed to the alleged visionary Pierina Gilli who in 1947 and 1966 claimed to see the Mother of God appearing in this way at Montichiari and Fontanelle in Italy. Pierina claimed that Our Lady wished to be honoured as Rosa Mystica (mystical rose) and that the three roses represented our prayers (white), the sacrifices we make in atonement for the sins of others (red), and our penitence for our own sins (gold).

The duty of investigating any claimed apparition falls on the local bishop. Successive Bishops of Brescia discouraged attention to these claims:

  • 1968: Please don’t spread devotions the Church hasn’t investigated or approved.
  • 1975: Please honour Our Lady by going to established shrines rather than sites associated with this alleged apparition.
  • 1984: The official status of these alleged apparitions is currently ‘not proven’ (non constat de supernaturalitie) and therefore devotion to Our Lady Rosa Mystica in this fashion cannot be encouraged.
  • 1997: The Bishop who made the 1984 declaration and was still in post confirmed that the 1984 document was still in force.
  • 2001: The Liturgy Office of the Diocese of Brescia issued a Directory on how worship at the apparition sites was to be managed, in a way that minimised attention to the claimed apparitions.
  • 2008: The new Bishop of Brescia asked those who promote devotion to Our Lady Rosa Mystica to make clear that the Church position has not changed – the position is still that the Church does not recognise the truth of Pierina Gilli’s claims.

Whenever the Catholic Church investigates apparitions, it can declare one of three possible verdicts: of divine origin; definitely not of divine origin; or ‘not proven’. Where there are clear theological errors in the alleged message, the Church will quickly dismiss the claims as definitely not divine. But where there are novel devotions containing nothing inconsistent with the Catholic Faith, Mother Church often prefers to watch and wait, and make a final judgement in the light of the long term fruits.

In July 2013, the Diocese of Brescia again updated the Directory regulating worship at the apparition sites. In short, Our Lady can be honoured under the title Rosa Mystica because this is an ancient title of the Madonna; but no reference may be made during official activities to the alleged visions and their messages.

In 2014, an official decree of the Diocese of Brescia erected the “Foundation Rosa Mystica Fontanelle” as the Church’s official organisation to care for the property and activities at Fontanelle. It is noteworthy that the cycle of monthly and annual events include all the particular devotions (13th day of each month, and special activities on 13 July, 13 October and 8 December) which can be found in the alleged revelations. Paradoxically, although the new Foundation’s mission is not to promote the alleged messages of Pierina Gilli, their website does offer a short summary which is necessary to explain why the shrine exists in the first place!

Today, 7 December 2019, Bishop Tremolda (Bishop of Brescia since 2017) will institute an official sanctuary of Our Lady Rosa Mystica at the apparition site in Fontanelle. In a letter issued 21 November 2019, the new bishop recognises that many thousands of pilgrims have come to this place to honour Our Lady, and is cautiously optimistic that this is a healthy devotion for the Christian faithful. His letter acknowledges that judging the fruits of the devotion is as important as weighing up Pierina’s claims in judging this spiritual phenomenon. He also mentions that there is a ‘renewed phase’ of investigation taking place, with the Diocese of Brescia and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith continuing to evaluate the claims.

As is the case with Medjugorje, the current position is therefore that pilgrims are welcome to come to Fontanelle as a place of pilgrimage, without the Church making any definitive decision on the truth or otherwise of the apparitions and messages which have been claimed there – but with the clear intention that the visions should be judged, in part, on the fruits which come from practicing the devotions.

Some will see this as a sign of organic growth towards final recognition, which always happens with a plausible apparition: initial scepticism giving way to cautious welcome of the fruits – ministering to those who come out of love for Mother Mary. Others will lament the fact that so many ‘disobedient’ pilgrims came to the shrine that provision for pilgrimages has had to be made in the first place – their disdain motivated by filial love and obedience for Mother Church. Let us always seek the best possible motives in those who take a different position from ourselves and disagree well! The inauguration this weekend is not insignificant, since part of the alleged Rosa Mystica message concerns devotions on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. However, that should not be taken as endorsement of the proposed devotion, either – Jesuitical ambiguity worthy of Pope Francis himself!