Homily to Members of Sion Community and Livestream Participants for The Solemnity of Saints Peter & Paul, 2020.

Is your heart in shackles? Is your freedom in chains? Brothers and sisters, learn a lesson today from St Peter and St Paul! These bonds can be broken by prayer!

But how should we pray? Today, the lives of these great saints will teach us about penance, petition, praise and personal prayer!

Sometimes, we feel trapped because we’ve made bad choices – we’ve sinned. But take heart! Jesus gave St Peter the ‘power of binding and loosing’ – which includes the power to say ‘Your sins are forgiven!’ The Church used this power to develop Confession, or the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which we also call ‘Penance’. It’s not been so easy to access this for the last few months, but this week the Church issued guidelines for England which will allow priests to publish times for confession again! If you want to experience freedom through the powerful prayer of penance, go!

Don’t be a bad-tempered child saying “I don’t need to!” – that’s petulance and pride! Be a friend of St Peter who wants to experience all the blessings of the power of the keys, all the graces that come from entrusting a penitent heart to the ministry of the church.

Sometimes we know someone else is in shackles, and we feel called to pray for them, and pray hard. One such person of prayer was Rhoda.

You don’t hear her name in today’s first reading, but if you read the whole of Acts 12, you’ll discover that when Peter was put in prison, the church in Jerusalem was praying for his release. They met in a house where the serving maid was called Rhoda. During one of their prayer meetings, there was a knock at the door – and to Rhoda’s amazement, it was Peter. She was so excited she ran back to the prayer meeting and shouted out “Peter’s at the door!” But poor Rhoda, she had no more success than St Mary Magdalen in proclaiming such miraculous good news. The people doubted her, until there came another loud knock at the door. The Risen Jesus might have been able to pass through a locked door; but St Peter, thought his shackles had fallen off and the prison doors had opened before him, was now stuck outside – because in her excitement, Rhoda hadn’t actually opened the gate!

Rhoda reminds us that it’s good to pray for people who need freedom, but we need to help in practical ways, too! Some of us may feel called to campaign for prisoners of conscience, including Christians imprisoned in other lands. Many of us will be concerned that members of black and other ethnic minorities don’t enjoy equal health and social privileges. The slogan “Black Lives Matter” is controversial. Don’t all lives matter? Yes, but following Christ who loved the outcast and disadvantaged, we must have a special care for those who, for whatever reason, are worse off in our society. Isn’t there a formal “Black Lives Matter Movement” whose founders have an explicit agenda to promote liberal sexual values which don’t match our Catholic morals? Yes, but the slogan is not the movement. It’s just good to be aware that if we choose to use the slogan as a sign of solidarity and support, some will read it as support for parts of a wider movement we might not choose to endorse. [You may be interested an in hour-long reflection on racial justice by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.]

We are called to bring freedom to those unjustly imprisoned. Let us address our petitions to the rulers of earth and the ruler of heaven!

Fr Raniero Cantalamessa recently wrote about the time St Paul and his companion Silas were in prison. They too were granted a miraculous escape – we read that God sent an earthquake while they were singing hymns of praise! They weren’t just crying out in their misery, “Jesus, get me out of here.” No, they were praising the goodness of God!

Now that’s a big test. Do you trust God enough to praise him when you’re in a trap? And more than that, do you trust that his plans will work out for the best – so much so that you can actually thank him that you’re in trouble? Another writer, Merlin Carothers, wrote a book with many stories of people who praised God because they were in trouble, and discovered God’s miraculous help soon followed! But this Merlin warns us it’s not a magic formula – it’s not “say words of praise and God will do something”, no, it’s an invitation to ask if you can see God’s goodness clearly enough to know that he’s worth praising even the midst of our troubles? What’s important is when we’re in trouble, we mustn’t look at ourselves and throw a pity party. We must look to heaven and praise God!

We can find freedom through confession and penance. We can find freedom through the petitions of others – and we can work and pray for others to be freed. We can find freedom through entrusting ourselves to God and offering praise. But we can also find freedom when other people pray for us in a personal way, freedom that helps us to take positive steps we might not have taken otherwise. One example of that is through Unbound Prayer, which we’ve been supporting as a community during this last year. This is a model of praying with other people to tackle the spiritual roots of the things that block our freedom. But freedom can also come through the simple prayers of other Christians who take time to listen to us and pray with us. So to end today’s message, I’d like to invite Monika, one of our youth members, to share one story from her own experience.

Interview for Lithuanian Radio

The text which follows is the extended version of an interview I recently offered LRT Radio in Lithuania, in preparation for supporting Lithuania’s International Evangelisation School. The edited version, in translation, can be heard on the radio site.

Our guest today is Fr Gareth Leyshon, a Catholic priest from the UK. Fr Gareth has been a parish priest for 12 years, but now works full-time with the Sion Community for Evangelism. Fr Gareth, could you tell us something about yourself and the community you belong to?

It’s great to be with you today! You could say I am on my 4th career at the moment! I was given my first computer in 1982. I learned to program when I was still at school. In the 1980s there were lots of “learn to program” magazines. I earned some money writing articles for them. But I was more interested in astronomy, so at school I specialised in maths and physics. I went to Oxford University for three years, and then went home to Wales for my PhD. I spent four years studying dust falling into black holes in distant galaxies – that was my 2nd career.

During the 1990s, I went on many Catholic retreats for young adults. The “Youth 2000” movement invited young people to spend time praying the rosary, adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and listening to the teaching of the Catholic Church. Towards the end of my degree, I went to one of these retreats and asked God what I should do next. Nothing clear came to me in the prayer time, but I drove a friend home from the retreat. In the car, we talked about our futures. I remember saying: “I don’t know what I’m going to do next but when I become a priest…” I stopped talking, I was so surprised at those words coming out of my mouth! So in 1999, I handed in my PhD thesis in July and started seminary in September.

Every Catholic priest either belongs to a religious community or works under the authority of a local bishop. I applied to the Archbishop of Cardiff, who is responsible for South-East Wales, and one county in England across the border. I was ordained priest in 2007 and my 3rd career was in parish ministry. I spent 6 years in one parish in the Welsh Valleys, which used to be a centre for coal mining and iron making, but had become a university town. Then I served in several parishes in Cardiff, the capital city of Wales. But I sensed God was asking me for something more – which is why I asked my bishop for permission to join the Sion Community for Evangelism.

I learned about Sion Community in the 1990s, when I met two of its founder members who had become teachers in Wales. When they started a family, they had to leave full-time mission work. Then in 2006, I spent three months training with Sion Community. Although priests spend six years in seminary, I didn’t feel well equipped to share the Catholic message with people who weren’t believers. How do we help people with no faith discover that God is real? How can we show Catholics who no longer attend church that God is inviting them to meet him there? What can we say to Catholics who do go to Mass, to help them discover that Jesus is alive and wants to speak to their hearts? Why don’t many Catholics want to invite other people to come to church and know Jesus? My bishop gave me permission to attend a three-month course with Sion Community to find out.

As a newly ordained priest, I had no free time to keep up my links with Sion Community. But in 2016, my bishop made some changes to my duties which gave me enough space to become a part-time, or ‘Associate’ member of the community. That meant that I could help out with parish missions – going to another parish for a week to preach at daily services and assist with confessions. It also meant I could attend the two community gatherings each year, spending time with other Catholics – mostly laity, not clergy – people who were passionate about sharing the message of Jesus. During those years of part-time membership, I experienced an overwhelming joy every time I assisted with a mission or attended a community gathering. This led me to ask my bishop for permission to leave my parish and be a full-time missionary – so I began my 4th career, as a Sion Community Missionary, in January last year.

Before coronavirus, the full time missionary work took me to parishes in Scotland, Ireland and Wales for weeks of preaching. I also helped our school mission team to work in several schools in England. With school pupils, we use music, drama, videos and, for the younger children, puppet shows, to share the message that God loves us and Jesus wants to teach us how to love other people. Right now, we cannot visit schools or parishes. We are learning how to make video resources and connect with young people, safely, through social media.

Are you a Catholic believer from your childhood? Which love did come first – science or faith?

I became a Catholic when I was 16 years old. Wales in the 1970s was a Christian culture. Most children were sent to some kind of church – Anglican, Methodist, Baptist or Catholic. Even the Government-run schools had Christian prayers every morning. Both my parents grew up as members of the Anglican Church, but stopped worshipping when they were teenagers. Dad isn’t sure that there is a God – he would call himself agnostic. Mum believes there is Someone but doesn’t let it affect her life. I was baptised as an Anglican at 9 months – my grandfather was an active member of that church, and made sure that happened. When I was old enough to go to children’s church, my parents sent me to a local evangelical group called the Salvation Army.

My love for science came long before I took an interest in God. As a child, I loved reading books, and would go every week to the children’s library in town to borrow something new to read. At the age of 7, I discovered the science section. As soon as I had read a book about space, I wanted to know more – within a few months, I had read every astronomy book they had! Then my parents bought me a telescope so I could study the planets and stars at night.

Faith only came to me when I was 11 years old. I learned about Bible stories from Sunday School with the Salvation Army – and at weekday school. But I never asked myself if I thought they were real. I knew how to say the right words when it was my turn to pray, but I never asked if I was really ‘talking to someone’. Then, in February 1985, my grandmother died. It was the first time I’d lost a grandparent when I was old enough for that to hurt. I said the first serious prayer of my life: “God, if you are there, look after my grandmother – and show me you are real.”

What happened next is difficult to put into words. Over the next few weeks, I had a definite sense that Someone was there when I prayed. I would pray for lost things to be found, and they would be found quickly. I read about the different religions in the world. Who was this Someone I was connecting with?

Later that same year, I started Secondary School, and was given a Bible to read. You might have heard of the Gideon Society, who leave Bibles in hotel rooms around the world? In Wales in the 1990s, they tried to give every child a copy of the New Testament and Psalms. The gift came with a request to read the Bible every day, and it came with a 2-year reading plan. So in 2 years I had read the whole of the New Testament. It seemed to me that the Someone I was connecting with by praying was the same Jesus I met in the pages of the Bible. There was no other religion in the world whose founder had passed through death and returned alive!

Much of what the Bible asked me to do, I was already doing. I tried my best to be kind, help other people, and forgive quickly. But there was one thing Jesus asked me to do that I wasn’t already doing: to eat his flesh, and drink his blood. I was still going to church on Sundays, but the Salvation Army didn’t offer Holy Communion. So I read about the other kinds of church, and I discovered that the Catholic Church had believed for 2000 years that when a priest blessed bread and wine, it really becomes Jesus’ Body and Blood. I also read about places like Lourdes and Fatima. If the Mother of Jesus was appearing and asking people to pray the rosary, the Catholic Church must be doing a good thing! So at the age of about 14, I decided that I wanted to be a Catholic. But it took two more years for me to find the courage to tell my parents and start going to Mass! I became a Catholic at the Easter Vigil in 1990, at the age of 16.

So I fell in love first with science, then with Jesus, then with the Catholic Church. Science was my first loved, and it shaped my decisions for university. I applied to the famous Oxford University and was accepted to read Physics. There, I fell in love with a girl for the first time in my life – but it didn’t work out. I started thinking about priesthood before I left Oxford, but the chaplains there said I was too new as a Catholic to be ready to make that decision. Instead, I worked in another English University, Nottingham, as a chaplain’s assistant for a year. Then Cardiff University offered me a funded place to research Black Holes!

Gravity is the most powerful physical force in the universe. A star shines because it’s a nuclear reactor, but when it runs out of suitable fuel to burn, gravity takes over. It’s the heat from the nuclear reactions which keeps the heart of a star bubbling up at a particular size. When a star reaches the end of its life, its heart collapses and its outer shell is blown off into space. You’ve probably seen beautiful pictures of space clouds from the Hubble Space Telescope? Many of those are the outer shells of exploded stars. But gravity can crush the heart of the star into something so tiny that, with all the matter piled up in one place, nothing – not even light – can travel fast enough to overcome the gravity. That’s what we call a Black Hole.

We think that many, if not all, galaxies have a black hole at their centre. A galaxy is a collection of hundreds of millions of stars bound together by gravity. The stars swirl around each other, often forming spiral patterns – but if they travel too close to the heart of the galaxy, they will be torn apart by the Black Hole and add to its power. The more stuff that falls into the black hole, the stronger it gets. But like water flowing down your plughole, stuff can’t fall straight into the Black Hole – if too much of it tries to go in at once, it creates a ring with the inner edge falling in first. My PhD work was to study these rings, and see if light from the hot gas there behaved in the ways that scientists predicted. My conclusion was that it did – but the evidence was not strong because the signals were so hard to measure.

Half-way through my PhD I had to start thinking about my next career move. Did I wish to become a teacher? Did I want to continue scientific research? But that was when I drove home from a youth retreat and found myself declaring that I wanted to be a priest!

Can faith and science fundamentally match together? How do you personally reconcile the fact that you are PhD in astrophysics and a priest?

Any scientist is a truth-seeker. How does the Universe work? What does the evidence say? We build on our knowledge of things which are certain, to explore ideas which are uncertain. Scientists have good imaginations. We produce thousands of ideas! But we must test our ideas against the real world, and nature is always right! A professional scientist needs lots of humility; the scientist must always recognise truth, even when it means letting go of his or her own ideas.

My journey into faith was also a search for truth. What do the different religions in the world say? Which one matches my experience of prayer? Which one makes predictions which I can test out in my life?

I had several data points to work with. First, the claim that Jesus rose from the dead – and hundreds of martyrs died in the first Christian century for insisting that it was true. Second, the places that the Virgin Mary had appeared, asking people to go to Mass and pray the rosary. Third, the things Jesus said about people who follow him. Would we experience answered prayer? Would we experience the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit? When I was a very new believer, God seemed to give positive answers to my simple prayers for lost things. I don’t get instant answers to prayers now, but I understand that is part of growing up with God. There comes a point where God says: “Do you love the things I can give you, or will you love Me even without them?” So I would say that my choices to believe in God and to become a Catholic were very ‘scientific’ decisions.

Why does the Universe exist? There are three ways of answering that question. One is to say it had no beginning and has ‘always’ existed so it doesn’t need a reason. Another is to say that ‘God made it’ – but any small child will then ask, ‘Who made God?’. The third is to come up with a scientific reason why a universe can start existing – and because the universe contains everything that exists, that’s a problem of creating something from nothing. For the last 100 years, science has studied ways of creating ‘something from nothing’, which happens as part of what we call quantum mechanics. At the level of individual atoms, the universe is fuzzy, and for a very short moment of time, particles can come into existence and then disappear again. This is called the ‘Casimir Effect’ and although it sounds strange, it can be measured in a laboratory. We have demonstrated that mathematical truth is powerful enough to make things start existing. It’s not such a large leap after that to imagine that mathematical truth can make something exist which doesn’t disappear in a fraction of a second, too! So as a scientist, I would say that it is Truth which makes the Universe exists – but as a believer, I would say that Truth is another name for God.

Now, did God have to nudge the Universe as it grew and developed to produce what we see today? Did God have to set the laws of physics just right so stars would have time to shine for millions of years? Did God nudge the origins of life on earth or the development of human beings? I don’t know. I believe that God CAN intervene and work miracles. But the history of science tells me of many examples where we first said “That step in the history of a star or a species is so unlikely that only God could make it happen” – and then we discovered something we didn’t know before which gives an explanation with no need for God’s help! So I will never rush to say “God is the answer!” when faced with a difficult science problem.

There are some Christians who find it difficult to accept all that science tells us. If you believe every word in the Bible is literally true, then you quickly run into problems with science. When you add up the ages of everyone in the Old Testament, our world seems to be about 6,000 years old; the scientific evidence says 4,600,000,000. Archaeologists say human beings have been around for 300,000 years and in Europe for 40,000 years. Of course God COULD have created the world 6,000 years ago making it look like it had been around for millions of years already; without a time machine to go back and check, there’s no way to tell the difference! But as Catholics, we are not required to take every word in the Bible literally. We can read the Book of Nature as well as the Book of Scripture – God speaks through both. Even St John Paul II said that they theory of evolution was ‘more than a hypothesis’, recognising that it was the best scientific explanation for the origin of human life. But that doesn’t stop me believing that God adds a spiritual essence, a soul, to each new human being, and that soul continues to live after the body dies.

I no longer work in scientific research; my ministry as a priest requires my full attention to other duties. But I still identify myself as a ‘scientist’ and I rejoice that there are priests who do work as full-time scientists, some of them running the Vatican Observatory!

How do you talk about God to a modern person? What is actually more important – to know God by intellect or to have a living experience with Him?

Let’s start with the word ‘God’. I’ve learned, in my ministry as a priest, that this word, this name, means different things to different people. Often I am approached by a young adult who went to Catholic School, and now wants to have a baby baptised. I ask, “Tell me the story of where God is in your life?” Usually the person will say: “I got baptised, made my first communion, went to a Catholic School, maybe got confirmed” – and I say, “I’m glad the Church was such a big part of your life. But where was God?”

Now one of two things will happen. Half the time, the young adult tells me about church again. For these young people, the word “God” is just a label for “church stuff”. The other half will say: “God is always there. When I am sad, he makes me happy. When I need help, I pray.” That’s better, because at least they know God is a Someone. But they haven’t realised that Jesus came to help us know God as our Father; they don’t know that God asks us to connect with Him at Mass because he loves us. I once spoke to a young Polish woman and asked: “When you were confirmed, didn’t they tell you that God was a Father who loves you?” Her eyes opened wide – and for the first time, she heard it and believed. I’m sure they don’t forget to tell children that message in Poland – but it was only on that day that she was ready to hear it.

In the same way, as a child I learned many stories from the Bible, but I didn’t ask whether I believed they were true until my grandmother died. Then, suddenly, it mattered to know the answer! Now, when I work with children preparing for First Communion, I always say: “You’ve learned lots of stories from the Bible. But do you believe Jesus rose from the dead? Do you think he really came to help us know God Our Father?” Until it becomes real – until it becomes personal – our faith isn’t a living thing. So absolutely, it is important to not just know God in our minds but connect with him in our hearts.

In philosophy, there are many so-called ‘proofs’ that God exists. They use logic to show that there must be a First Cause, an Unmoved Mover, a Ground of all Being. It makes sense that to avoid an infinite chain of cause and effect, something or someone must be at the beginning. For some people, this kind of logic is enough to come to know that God exists. But this kind of God, a powerful Truth that summons all things into existence, can feel quite cold. Jesus came to show us that God is not an impersonal, mathematical, force but a loving person who longs to know us as his children.

In my time as a Catholic, I’ve met many people who have had a deep emotional experience of becoming aware of God’s love – a personal love for them alone. I’ve never had that kind of experience; my journey is an intellectual one of knowing that Jesus speaks truth and so I am certain that God is present as a loving Father. I might never experience that love emotionally until I die and reach heaven – but the knowledge that it is true is enough to commit my life to the work of a priest and of a missionary.

Jesus said “Go and make disciples of all nations.” My calling is to invite people to listen to Jesus and follow him, trusting that this will give them a beautiful life not only in this world but for eternity. Not everyone accepts the message – but Jesus gave us the Parable of the Sower to warn us that many of our seeds will fall on ground which is not ready. To any modern person willing to listen, I will say: Seek the Lord and you will find him – but be warned, this is a life changing experience. So God says “seek with all your heart”. If you are ready for your life to be transformed, dare to do what I did. Say: God if you’re there, show me!

Imagine That!

Homily to Members of Sion Community and D-Weekend and Livestream Participants for The 12th Sunday of Year A.

Today, I’ve got good news, and better news.

The good news is that today’s message comes with pictures.

The even better news is that, to avoid any technical failure, the images aren’t going to use technology. Instead, they’re going to be in your head.

Did you know your mind has a special part for generating images? That’s why it’s called your imagination!

So I’d like to invite you to use your imagination today to picture a sad story and a happy story – and I’m going to start with this one. So see what image comes into your head as you hear this story.

Very sadly this week, a 14-year-old died. He’d achieved a great deal during his short life. He was quite famous. He was ginger, and usually wore a colourful scarf – in fact he was quite good looking. He’d helped a homeless man find the confidence to put his life back together, and he’d become a media star.

I’m going to come back to this story later – just to help you remember, I’ll tell you know that the 14-year-old’s name was Bob. The second story is from my own life, and it’s something that happened when I was 22. Back then, I was a full-time research scientist working on my doctorate. Because the Government wanted scientists to be good at marketing their discoveries, I was sent on a two-week long business school. So there I was, with around fifty other science students who I’d never met before, and we were put into small groups.

So now, in your imagination, picture me with a tutor and four or five other students, people I didn’t know at all. The tutor has just asked each of us to share something unexpected about ourselves. I’ve come up with an idea, but I’m not sure whether I should share it or not. I mean, what would these other science students think of me if I said something like this? Would they tease me? Would they think I’m not a proper scientist at all?

Oh, you want to know what I was thinking of? OK. It’s this. About three years earlier, I’d won a college prize for an essay I wrote. It wasn’t about science – it was about religion. My essay was about places where people claimed the Virgin Mary had appeared with messages for people. But could I, should I, dare I, share with these other students my belief that Mary the Mother of Jesus was alive in heaven and could appear to people on earth? Imagine yourself in my position. Would you do it? Or would you try to think of something safer?

I did it!

And you know what? It was OK! The other students, and the tutor, were fascinated and they asked me lots of questions. I don’t think any of them were religious believers, but they were really open minded. In fact, some of them said they thought what I had done was really cool!

Sometimes we find support in unexpected places. There again, sometimes the people we think would support us, don’t. Maybe we’re at a Catholic school but if we put our hand up to answer a question in Religious Education, we get mocked by our friends. If we make a comment on social media that backs up our Catholic faith, we might get flamed for it – and not only by unbelievers but by other Christians who think we’re being too hard or too soft! Jeremiah hoped the Jewish community would support him, but they threw him into a pit!

Now, back to Bob, with his colourful scarf. Do you have a picture in your head of this likeable, ginger, 14-year-old? How many legs has he got? You’re probably thinking “two”. But hang on, I asked the question, and Bob has died at 14 so maybe he had an accident? One leg? None? Wrong again. The famous Bob who died this week had four legs! He was a ginger cat, the inspiration behind the film A Street Cat Named Bob.

How did a cat become famous? It was through James Bowen, a recovering drug addict, who had been sleeping rough on the streets of London. He met Bob, a homeless cat, just after being given a flat to live in. But Bob wouldn’t stay close to the flat – he kept following James everywhere, and that’s what made the difference.

Imagine what it’s like, trying to earn a living on the streets of London. Maybe you’re busking with a guitar. Maybe you’re trying to sell the Big Issue magazine. How many people are going to ignore you? How many will stop to talk to you? How many will actually treat you like a human being?

Now imagine doing these same things with a ginger cat – plus his bright striped scarf – perched on your neck or next to your loudspeaker. Suddenly the passers-by who aren’t interested in you are very interested in your cat! This attracted the attention of a local newspaper, and then a literary agent who said “You should write a book about Bob!” which led to a film and Bob’s worldwide fame.

James Bowen was blessed to meet Bob when he did – it gave him the focus he needed to turn his life around. Our job is to look out for people who aren’t so lucky. Jesus saw something in people who might have been ignored. If we’re disciples, if we learn from Jesus, we have to do the same. Is there someone in our school class or workplace that nobody wanted to talk to? What are the chances that no-one’s bothered ringing this person to see how lockdown is going for them? You could be the person who rings!

This is where our imagination gets in the way. We might imagine if we reach out to the least popular person we know – or if we’re seen to take church too seriously – we might lose some friends. But we’re using our imagination the wrong way. Imagine the last day of your life, when you get to meet Jesus face to face. What’s going to happen? Is Jesus going to shake his head sadly and say “You didn’t stand up for me – and you didn’t help the person you know gets left out?” Or is Jesus going to smile and say “Well done! Come in and receive your reward!”

So now imagine what you could do today or tomorrow to make the world a better place. And don’t just imagine! Dare to make your dreams come true!

Holy Transfusion

Homily to Members of Sion Community and Livestream Participants for The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, Year A.

You must eat the flesh of the Son of Man, or you have no life within you!

But don’t panic. If you’ve already received Holy Communion once in your life, you’ve fulfilled the condition! This is why Holy Communion is regarded as one the three ‘sacraments of initiation’ and in the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church, communion is normally given to infants at the time of their baptism! Unlike Baptism and Confirmation, Holy Communion isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime gift. Like any other food, it is meant to nourish us continually; Pope Francis has called it ‘Medicine for the Soul’. (Evangelii Gaudium 47)

How often should we come to Holy Communion? Our Lord didn’t say – though he did teach us to pray for our daily bread, or in one possible translation, our ‘supersubstantial bread’.  The little bits of evidence we have from the first three centuries of Christianity suggest that Mass was only celebrated on Sundays and on the anniversary of the death of significant martyrs. But we also know that sometimes people took the Blessed Sacrament home so they could have communion on other days, too. (See for instance this letter by the 4th Century’s St Basil of Caesarea.)

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, suddenly there were lots of full-time priests so it became normal to have Mass celebrated every day. But then, as the centuries went by, worshippers became more and more worried about whether they were holy enough to receive communion; many thought that if they just went to Mass and saw the Body of Christ lifted high, that would be enough. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament was invented to prolong that moment of being able to gaze upon the Body of Jesus. In the year 1215 it was necessary for the Fourth Lateran Council to make a law binding on all Catholics that they must take Holy Communion at least once a year, around Easter time – that became called the ‘Easter Duty’.

In this year, 2020, most of us have been unable to make our Easter Duty – indeed, Cardinal Nichols has made it clear that we are excused us from that requirement. Instead, many of us have discovered, or rediscovered, the tradition of making a spiritual communion. But what is a ‘spiritual communion’ and what does the Church say about it?

We know that in normal circumstances, God expects us to make use of the sacraments of the Church. There is something physical about each of the sacraments – they make use of bread, wine, water, oil, or the laying-on-of-hands. Even with confession, the priest stretching his hand in the direction of the penitent is understood to be part of the sacrament, which is why the Vatican hasn’t allowed confession by phone or videoconference. In each of the sacraments, there is a promise that when we carry out the physical action and say the right words with the right meaning, God has given us an absolute guarantee that some gift of grace will be given. A child is baptised or confirmed; bread and wine does become the Body and Blood of Christ; a man does become a bishop, priest or deacon.

But we also know that nothing can come between us and the love of God, and that includes the social distancing which prevents us connecting through these physical rituals. Suddenly we’ve rediscovered the importance of baptism of desire, of an act of perfect contrition, and of the possibility of making a ‘spiritual communion’.

Does the Catholic Church say anything officially about spiritual communion? Yes, but you need to do a little digging to find it! In 1983, St John Paul II wrote a letter about the importance of priestly ministry in the church, which included these words:

Individual faithful or communities who … are deprived of the holy Eucharist … do not thereby lack the grace of the Redeemer. If they are intimately animated by a desire for the sacrament and united in prayer with the whole Church, and call upon the Lord and raise their hearts to him, by virtue of the Holy Spirit they live in communion with the whole Church, the living body of Christ, and with the Lord himself. Through their desire for the sacrament in union with the Church, no matter how distant they may be physically, they are intimately and really united to her and therefore receive the fruits of the sacrament.

What does this mean when translated from Vaticanese into plain English? ‘Spiritual Communion’ is the equivalent to receiving nourishment from an intravenous drip! We can receive the same benefit – what the Church calls the ‘fruits’ – but without the physical experience of eating, touching, tasting, feeling. When we physically receive Holy Communion, we can say that Jesus is sacramentally present within our bodies for a short time, until the matter of the Host is dissolved in our stomachs. When we make an act of Spiritual Communion, we don’t make Jesus sacramentally present – but we receive the same blessings that we would receive if he were.

There are two guarantees of God’s help attached to the Eucharist. The first is that if a validly ordained priest offers the prayer of consecration over bread and wine, intending to ‘do what the Church does’, that bread and wine will certainly become the Body and Blood of Christ, regardless of the sinfulness of the priest. The second is that when any person receives Holy Communion worthily, they receive fruits including forgiveness of lesser sins, help to resist temptation, and an increase in capacity to love others.

What must we do to receive these fruits? First, we must desire Holy Communion – as I know those of you joining us online surely do. Second, we must ‘unite in prayer with the whole church’. We are most closely united when we join those at a distance in real time – which is why the Vatican asked us to connect to live, not recorded, broadcasts of the Easter Triduum. Finally, we must ‘raise our hearts to the Lord’. To do this, we must have first examined our hearts for sin, lest we eat the Lord’s body unworthily – which is why almost every Mass begins with a penitential rite. But if our hearts are right, we must simply cry out to Jesus, ‘draw close to me’ – or in the words of the prayer we have shared many times in these weeks, ‘Come to me, O my Jesus, since I, for my part, am coming to You!’

The Image of God

Homily to Members of Sion Community and Livestream Participants for Trinity Sunday, Year A.

What’s a good image for God?

The Hebrew Bible makes it abundantly clear that there is only One God. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God!”

The New Testament makes it equally clear that there are three distinct persons in God: Jesus and the Father are so united that they are ‘one’ yet remain different persons; and the Father will send ‘another’ who is the Holy Spirit.

The honest truth is that there is no-one and nothing exactly like God, so no image we try to use will be perfect – they all help in some way, but they all have limitations.

Legend has it that St Patrick used a shamrock – a plant with three identical leaves. Yes, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are identical in nature – but God is not three ‘things’ joined together to make a bigger thing. This image doesn’t have enough connection between the three persons who are God.

Another common image is how the same woman might be a daughter, and a wife, and a mother. These are three distinct identities, grounded in how she relates to others. But these identities are not separate enough. The daughter/wife/mother is the same person. Within God there are three distinct persons.

Try the picture in front of the altar – a figure on a wet beach. The person standing is the ‘original’ who gives shape to both the reflection and the shadow, just as there is something original about God the Father, who begets the Son and from whom the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds’. The reflection is only present because of the water, just as Jesus is only a visible form of God because he entered into our material world. Of course this is limited as well, because a shadow and a reflection are very different kinds of thing from the original. And I wouldn’t want to liken the Holy Spirit to a shadow.

Yet we can do more with this image – if we use a bit more imagination. Focus less on the person standing on the beach and more on the light. After all, when you look at another person, you don’t actually see the person directly – you see light, from the Sun or a bulb – which has been given shape by reflecting off that person. If you don’t believe me, try looking at the same person in a pitch-black room!

God is light. God exists. In the beach-picture the daylight is everywhere. Now don’t focus on the person on the beach; you can try half-closing your eyes if you like. The light is given form, given shape, by this ‘original person’, just see that there is ‘someone’ there. The outline of the same someone is seen reflected in the world by the water. And the shadow? Well, we only know a shadow is there because of the light around it. So see the light around the shadow – not the silhouette but the halo – given shape by the original standing there. We could even give the halo a technical name used by artists – the glory! Like all images of God this is inadequate, but there’s a more intimate connection between the original, the reflection and glory than between the three leaves of a shamrock; and there are clearly three distinct versions of the shape, not just one original with three different roles like the daughter/wife/mother.

My last image of the Trinity comes from the movie trilogy, The Matrix. The lead character is introduced to us as ‘Mr Anderson’, which Greek-speakers will recognise means ‘The Son of Man’. He is soon recruited to become a hero fighting evil with the code-name Neo, which can mean ‘new’ but is also an anagram of ‘One’. Eventually – spoiler alert – he will sacrifice his life to overcome a great evil. But before that, Neo seems to be fatally wounded until he is revived by a kiss from the woman who has been watching over him – named Trinity. Of course this Trinity is only one person, not three – but at that moment in the plot her love is revealed to one whose name is Man. As in so many movies, we, the viewers, become aware of the lover’s great love long before the moment when the lover reveals it to the beloved.

As in art, so in life – we often confuse two key questions. How does this person feel about us? How does this person show their feelings towards us? All of today’s readings sing out that God loves us, and loves us immensely. The God of Israel declares his kindness, faithfulness and patience to Moses – without love, God would never have called Moses to rescue the Israelites. Jesus explains to Nicodemus how he has been sent by his Father to offer humanity eternal life. St Paul blesses us with God’s love towards, with the gift lovingly given by Jesus, and the love of the Holy Spirit which unites us.

Often, when we pray with other people, God might show us an image or prompt us with a word which means little to us but is deeply meaningful to the person who received it. The recipient might say, “Wow! God was watching when I said that prayer, or when I went through that difficult time.” It’s no little thing, to know that the God who created the universe – yes, all three Persons – The Holy Trinity is mindful of us, is well-disposed towards us, and wants to communicate this to us.

Does that mean that we will feel God’s love continually? Sadly, no, not in this earthly life. Neo has to go on many adventures without Trinity alongside him, but he takes with him the knowledge of Trinity’s love and the memory of her kiss. In our low times we can be tempted to say, “God, if you really loved me…” and finish the sentence with our most urgent wish. But the Father’s answer is to say, “No, because I really loved you, I sent my son Jesus to die for you and offer you my Holy Spirit to live within you.” True love is always freely given. We can’t demand to be loved in a particular way. So next time you see a shadow, or a reflection, or any light at all, think of this image, and remember that whether you feel it or not, these three supremely important Persons all love you very much indeed. That’s not an image. That’s reality!