Facing the Future

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

[Before the Gospel is proclaimed, everyone present will be asked to remain standing at the end.]

Dear Friends, today we celebrate the 32nd anniversary of the Dedication of this Church, and I have asked you to remain standing because I would like to show you the future! What does the future of our parish look like?

First of all, if you are a visitor among us, and this is not the church where you usually worship, please be seated.

Secondly, if for any reason you do not expect to be attending this church most Sundays by this time next year, please be seated.

I wish to show you the future, and we must plan for the long term. I hope that many of us will live long lives of service continuing to contribute to the parish, but for now I would like everyone aged over 75…70…65 to sit down.

Finally, I want to address our brothers and sisters from India, who belong to the Syro-Malabar branch of the Catholic Church. I don’t know what provision your bishop will make in the coming years, but let’s imagine that a priest is sent to Cardiff to celebrate your liturgy, the Holy Qurbana, every Sunday. If you would choose to go to that rather than come here every Sunday, please sit down.

Those of you still standing, have a good look at each other. The future of our parish is in your hands. There is no-one else who can make our parish thrive when our older brothers and sisters find that declining health prevents them giving the wonderful gifts they offer us right now. You too, please be seated – but be attentive!

Give to God what belongs to God.

This was Our Lord’s answer to a trick question designed to catch him out. But it’s a good question. What does belong to God? What are we expected to give Him?

When the Lord invites you to the wedding banquet, will you come? And will you be wearing a wedding garment?

When the Lord looks for fruit in his vineyard, will have have grown any?

When the Lord asks you to work in his vineyard, will you go?

Over the last four Sundays, St Luke has repeatedly told us that God has work for us to do. That work includes the care we give to our families, our work colleagues and the local community – but in particular it applies to our work for this parish community. Today we celebrate the Dedication of the Church. We are the living stones of which our church is built. How dedicated are we?

The fact that we have a church building here in Llanedeyrn makes a statement. It says that we, the Catholics of this parish, takes responsibility for what belongs to God in Llanedeyrn, Pentwyn, Pontprennau and St Edeyrn’s Village. We are not St Brigid’s with St Paul’s. Our brothers and sisters there are responsible for Cyncoed and Llanishen. One question I always have to keep in mind as your Pastor is to ask whether we are still large enough as a community to do God’s work without needing to merge with our neighbours. Let’s assume, for the moment, that we are large enough. What challenges will the future bring?

I’d like to share with you some numbers.

Every year, the parents of about 70 children ask that they should receive First Communion here. Most of those families do not attend Mass regularly. Maybe 10 of those families are not even Catholic. How can we welcome them and encourage them to be active members of our parish family?

Every year, the parents of about 30 infants ask that these children should be baptised here. How can we welcome these and encourage them, too, to be active members of our parish family?

In January, after the Parish Mission, we launched our “Connect & Explore” Groups. About 25 of us came to try them out. Last month, we launched our new season… but only about 10 of us are still coming. That means that almost all of us, more than 300 souls, are not choosing to strengthen our community bonds and deepen our faith through the programme on offer. When we offer coffee and tea after Mass on the second Sunday of each month, maybe fifteen of us stay – but 150 souls leave without joining in. This is not a recipe for a healthy parish.

I know there are good reasons why some of us cannot take part. Maybe some of us work shifts which change from week to week. I have tried to address this by making sure that Connect & Explore runs in three different slots. Maybe some of us don’t like to drink tea or coffee – well, tell our caterers what we should be providing.

Those of you who were the last parishioners standing, you are from many nations, languages and cultures. I know that it takes extra effort to mix when you have to speak a language which is not your mother tongue, or share food which is not your natural palate. But consider this – what happens when a marriage takes place across such boundaries? Let me tell you about Graeme, who is Scottish. He married my friend Alina, who is Polish. Before the wedding, and again regularly afterwards, he went with Alina to visit her family in Poland. Graeme doesn’t speak Polish. Alina’s parents don’t speak much English. But this relationship matters. Alina’s family had become Graeme’s in-laws. So although it wasn’t easy, and still isn’t, Graeme continues to visit Poland, eat their food at their table, and do his best to communicate.

We are the bride of Christ. We celebrate today that in this parish, we are one spiritual family, bound together by our common baptism. But every time we refuse the invitation to spend time with one another, our actions are saying “You are not my family” – and the body of Christ is broken once again.

Now, how are we to respond to these many requests for baptism and first communion from families who do not often attend weekend worship? The law of the church (Canon 843) states: “Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, [who] are properly disposed…Pastors of souls and other members of the Christian faithful… have the duty to take care that those who seek the sacraments are prepared to receive them…”

Did you notice that? It’s not only my job as parish priest to help them become ready. It is also your job. You’ve heard the saying that “it takes a village to raise a child”? Well, “it takes a parish to make a Catholic”.

Last year, more than 60 children made their first communion in this parish. I’d like any children who made their First Communion in the last 3 years to stand up. [Affirm the children who do.] Is it OK that most of our children are missing now?

Last year, we baptised more than 30 children in this parish. How many of those babies are here right now? I do recognise that it’s difficult for parents to manage small children at Mass – indeed there’s no obligation to bring children under First Communion age to Mass – and I have good news: now that we have launched our parish Toddler Mass, more than 100 people came last Saturday. But that still doesn’t represent all the babies we have baptised. Is it OK that many of our families are missing now?

It’s not OK. So what are we going to do about it?

I want to share with you now the vision that Deacon Steve and myself have for the future.

Next Autumn, September 2018, we will launch something we’re calling the “Parish Connection Programme”. This will be a short course, over several evenings and perhaps a day retreat, that reminds us why we do the things we do as Catholics, why Our Lord Jesus is at the centre of faith, and what it means to be a member of this parish. This programme, or PCP, will be the gateway to receiving Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation in this parish. Do you want your baby baptised? Do the PCP. Do you want to become a Catholic? Do the PCP. Do you want your child to receive First Communion? In order to give your child appropriate parental example and support, do the PCP. What exactly we put into the PCP will be developed over the next few months with our Parish Leadership Group. But next year I will ask all of us to take part in a PCP so it becomes part of the shared history of our parish. I want us to come together from our different languages and cultures and do this together. And those of you who were the last ones standing, I am looking to you in particular to learn to run our Parish Connection Programme.

We will need to run lots of PCPs. Next autumn, a few pioneers will take part and iron out teething troubles. In spring 2019, the graduates of the first courses will run more of them so we can all take part. This will be the way to help our parish grow and become strong. We may need to put some of our other parish actitivies on hold for a few months to make space for this.

We CAN do this.

We NEED to do this.

If we face this with the wrong attitude, giving to God the work that belongs to God, it will become as tedious as paying taxes.

If we do it with the right attitude, we will meet the challenge in the same was as the Thessalonian Christians St Paul addressed his words to: “When we brought the Good News to you, it came to you not only as words, but as power and as the Holy Spirit and as utter conviction. You have shown your faith in action, worked for love and persevered through hope.”

We know what we need to do. This week we’ve been comparing notes with other pioneering parishes across the UK, and we know we’re taking the right steps. But we have to work together. We have one year to get ready for this new way of being parish, where all take part in the Parish Connection Programme, so we in turn can offer it to our missing brothers and sisters.

We can do this.

We WILL do this.

Who is ready to stand up and give to God what belongs to God?

 

Catholic or Christian?

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Twenty-Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

Are you a Catholic or a Christian?

Don’t take too long to think about it. I’m interested in the first answer that popped into your head. How many wanted to say “Christian”? How many “Catholic?” How many of you wanted to say “Both”?

I do acknowledge, of course, that not everyone here today is Catholic. Some of you are preparing to become Catholics – so you can ponder how you will answer the question when that happy day comes. Others among you are guests in our congregation from the Orthodox Churches of the East, welcome to receive the sacraments here. We share the same creed which declares the church to be universal – “catholic” with a small “c” – but you are not big-C Catholics under the authority of Pope Francis. You are always welcome here, and we pray for the day when our churches are known for being part of some united structure rather than a divided structure.

The big issue I want to tackle today is this: some of us are Catholics, but not Christians.

The word “Christian” means a follower of Christ. To be “a Catholic not a Christian” is to be a tenant in the Vineyard but not to welcome the landowner’s son.

A red bunch of grapes hangs from a grapevine which recedes into the distanceToday’s First Reading and Gospel use the image of a vineyard to describe Israel, God’s Chosen People. God Our Father expected them to bear fruit – to treat the poorest people generously and fairly, to keep worshipping God and not idols. The murdered servants represent the Prophets, like Elijah and Isaiah, sent to Israel through the ages. God is represented by the landowner who has “gone overseas” – we are separated from God in our broken humanity.

In the fullness of time, Jesus came – his mission was to give the Jewish people a perfect understanding of how to live out God’s Law. But the Jewish leaders conspired to have him crucified. So God put the vineyard in the care of new tenants – the Catholic Church! (Many of the first members were Jews who accepted Jesus as their Messiah.) Then, through our human brokenness, we divided the vineyard among ourselves. The Protestant section has each vine managed by its own leader. The Orthodox section has national groups of vines under one manager. In our Catholic section, Pope Francis is foreman over all our vines.

The trouble us, we still suffer from the same brokenness as the Israelites of old; we can still fall into the same traps. Here in the Catholic section of the Vineyard, we can be tempted to say, “I have my membership card! Look! I’m a member of the Catholic Tenants’ Association!” But will that be enough when we meet Jesus on the last day of our lives? If God the Father was angry with the lack of fruit then, will he be pleased with the fruit we are bearing now?

What does it look like, to bear fruit for God?

The most important fruit is new ChristiansHow many people have become active members of the Catholic Church because of you?

Another fruit is good works – do you volunteer for any church project or other activity in the local community?

Yet another fruit is our generous giving – is your gift to CAFOD this week the change in your pocket, or is it big enough that you will truly go without something you would have enjoyed?

Saint Paul speaks today about filling our minds with whatever is noble and pure. That includes avoiding pornography and gratuitous violence in what we choose to watch, read and listen to. It also includes taking time to fill our minds with God’s teaching, by reading the Bible at home and coming together for opportunities to explore our faith.

Imagine that Jesus stepped into this church right now and pointed his finger at you. “You, now, tell me what fruit you have borne for my vineyard!” What good have you done this year for the parish? What good have you done for the local community? What good have you done for your extended family?

Make no mistake, at the end of your life, Jesus will do this. There will be a reckoning. It’s not only for the good of the parish that I preach about ways to get involved – it’s so that you can give a good account of your fruitfulness when He asks you. I do not want you to be found lacking! If you can give a good account – fantastic! If not, there’s a right way and a wrong way to deal with it. The wrong way is to try to ignore the challenge, or become so angry that we want to keep our distance from Jesus. That’s when we might be tempted to say “I’m a Catholic, not a Christian!”

The right way is to face up to the challenge, and repent. If you know you haven’t been producing the fruit Jesus wants, I would like to invite you to come to confession straight after this Mass. Make a new beginning. Is this really sin? Oh yes! Sin, by definition, is “not doing what Jesus is asking you to do”! Or if you can’t linger after this Mass, come to confession some time in the next week.

Paul reminds us not to worry, but to pray for whatever we need. We can pray for forgiveness – we can pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit which allow us to bear fruit – and we can pray for God’s guidance to help us know how to use our talents. In the very act of seeking divine help, we bear the fruit of offering God worship!

Are you a Catholic or a Christian? If you cannot yet say: “I am a follower of Jesus, looking forward to the day he returns to this vineyard” – today would be a good day to decide to become a Christian!

 

 

 

Destination: Heaven

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

Imagine that you’re minding your own business, walking down a street in Cardiff, when a stranger approaches you and introduces themself to you. Very quickly the stranger asks you a direct question: “If you were to die tonight, do you know, without a shadow of a doubt, whether you would go to heaven?”A

Actually, that might have happened to some of us. Is there anyone in church today who has had such a conversation?

At the start of July this year, there were teams of Christians all over Cardiff asking that very question as part of a Mission to Wales.* The Mission will continue in future months, so if you haven’t been stopped yet, there’s a chance it might happen in the near future. But what answer would you give?

Now as Catholics, we believe in Purgatory – that for many souls, some purification may be needed before we can enter heaven. If the stranger asks you whether you would go “STRAIGHT to heaven”, you might say no, expecting to spend time in Purgatory first. But I don’t want to spend time today talking about Purgatory, or how to avoid it. I want to talk about our final destination. We know that all souls will either end up in Heaven or in Hell.**

Do you know what you have to do to make sure that you will end up in Heaven, not in Hell? I’ve tried asking lots of Catholics the question “will you go to heaven when you die”, and many of us don’t seem too sure about it! But we can be certain! St Paul seems pretty confident in today’s Second Reading that if he died, he would go to be with Jesus. Our Lord came to show us the way and tell us what we need to do. So here is your 5-minute guide on “How to Get to Heaven”.

Step One: Get Baptised.

Baptism wipes away all our past sins. When an adult – or a child old enough to understand – chooses baptism, they’re asking God to wash away everything bad from the past. Someone who dies just after baptism will surely go straight to Heaven.

Step Two: Avoid Mortal Sin.

Remember that a Mortal Sin is committed when we choose to do, or neglect, something which is serious in God’s eyes, in full knowledge of the situation, and with moral freedom to choose our course of action. It’s not possible to commit a Mortal Sin by accident – it’s because we’ve made a deliberate and free choice of something bad that the sin becomes mortal.

Step Three: If you do commit Mortal Sin, go to confession.

And if you aren’t sure whether your sin is mortal or not, go to confession. What you can be sure of, is that any sin sincerely confessed to a priest will be forgiven.

So…

Imagine that some terrible explosion destroyed all our bodies in the next sixty seconds. If you know that you’ve been baptised, and you’ve confessed any mortal sins committed since your baptism, you can rest assured in the knowledge that your final destination is Heaven.

On the other hand, if you’ve been avoiding baptism, or avoiding confessing the serious sins on your conscience, then start worrying, because your final destination would be the Other Place, and you don’t want to go there!

Of course, we can always try to pick this simple teaching apart with clever “What-If” scenarios. What if someone dies waiting for their scheduled baptism or on the way to confession? But God knows our hearts, and will not punish us for failing to do something we were genuinely trying to do.

Some of you might find a worrying word stirring in your consciousness at this moment, the word presumption. Weren’t we once taught as Catholics that we should avoid presuming we would go to heaven?

Not exactly, no.

What the Church says*** we can’t presume is that, if we don’t bother to repent of our sins, God will admit us to heaven anyway. No – the first message of Jesus is that we must repent! While Jesus does sometimes talk about good works – the sheep who feed the hungry and visit the prisoners are welcomed into heaven – we have to put all his teachings together to get the full picture, and Jesus spoke many times to warn us that our sins can send us to Hell if we don’t change our ways. So in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “Seek the Lord while he is still to be found! Turn back to God, who is rich in forgiving!”

Our Church also says that we can’t presume that our good deeds will “earn” our entry to Heaven. That’s what today’s parable is all about. Heaven is not a reward for doing a full lifetime’s work on earth. Rather, the deal God offers us is this: “If you’re working for me on the day you die, you’ll receive the reward in heaven.” On the other hand, if you’ve been labouring for a whole day, but you can’t look the master in the eye when it’s time to receive your wages, you will not receive your reward after all.

It’s very simple. Get baptised. Avoid sin. Confess the sins you can’t avoid committing. Never turn away from the deal God offers, that you must work for him on earth, and when you die, by the free gift God is offering, you will certainly go to heaven!

So next time someone stops you on the street to ask “If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven?” you should know exactly what answer you should give. And if that answer is not an unambiguous YES, I strongly urge you to do something about it!


* Full disclosure: CatholicPreacher led a team of 12 Catholics on the streets of Cardiff as contributors to the Mission.

** OK, this is an over-simplification for preaching purposes. Heaven and Hell are the long-term destinations pending the Second Coming. It’s possible a soul could be in Purgatory until the Last Judgment. And for a soul which has been in Heaven, or waiting in Purgatory for the Last Judgment, the ultimate destination is “the new heavens and the new earth” which the Bible promises. I’m using “ending up in Heaven” as shorthand for this. Souls in Hell receive their eternal body at the Last Judgment and then return to Hell.

*** The Council of Trent (Chapter XII of the Sixth Session) taught that no person could rashly presume to be predestined to eternal life “for without special revelation it is impossible to know whom God has chosen for himself”. However, this is a teaching about final perseverance (“If I don’t die right now, can I be sure I won’t commit a mortal sin between now and the moment I die”) rather than a teaching saying we can’t know the state of grace we’re in right now. Rather, because baptism and sacramental confession are objective acts, and Mortal Sin requires a conscious knowledge of one’s own action, I can make a very clear statement about whether I am in a “state of grace” right now. Baptism attains that state; mortal sin loses it; a genuine intent to confess the sin with a firm purpose of amendment regains it, sealed by actually making confession insofar as that is possible.

 

Advice for non-UK citizens wishing to be priests in the UK

I often receive messages on Facebook from young men who live outside the UK but would like advice on becoming priests in the UK. To avoid repeating myself, I am publishing some advice here.

First of all, thank you for being open to the call of God who may be asking you to offer yourself for the priesthood. Any call to the priesthood involves obedience, either to a religious superior, or to a local Bishop. In order to become a priest you must respect the procedures which the church leaders lay down.

In the UK, there are 22 dioceses across England and Wales, and 7 in Scotland. There are five Irish dioceses partly or wholly within Northern Ireland. Becoming a diocesan priest means pledging to a bishop that you will spend your whole life working in his territory (diocese). And in order to be accepted, you must already be familiar with the local culture. To be an effective priest you must know something about the lives of the people you will minister to. This might be because you grew up in that area; it might be that you have lived there for some time; it might be that you came there as a university student and stayed on.

Can someone from outside the UK become a priest for a British diocese? Yes, but it happens gradually. You can read the story of Chinedo Udo who came from Nigeria to study in London. Generally, you need to spend a period of at least 1-2 years living in the UK, at your own expense, meeting with the local vocations director. You will also need to have the right immigration status to allow you to continue to study and then to work in the UK. One English diocese notes on its website “in common with the other dioceses of England and Wales, we have a policy of not accepting applications from abroad. All our applicants must be legitimately resident in the United Kingdom”.

Another way of being a priest is to join a religious order. Some of these work internationally – but the normal way is to join is to approach the branch in your home country. Once again, there is a slow process of years rather than months where you might visit the order for a short time and then a longer time before actually becoming a member. Once you are fully trained and ordained, they will decide if you have the right gifts and talents to be sent to another country. Some orders have a particular focus on external missionary work – for instance, Nigerian residents can join the Missionaries of St Paul in the expectation of travelling elsewhere.

No diocese or religious order in the UK is going to fund or interview a person not currently living in the UK. If you truly believe that God is asking you to work in the UK rather than your own country, you must also trust that God will provide the means for you to get a secular job and a work permit in the UK, so you can learn the local culture and begin the long interview process. If there is a part of your heart that believes the UK has a high living standard and being a priest in the UK would enable to you to raise your income or send money home to your family, then be warned – Jesus said that we must be ready to leave everything, including property and family, to follow him. If income is what is truly on your heart, then your heart is not ready to be the heart of a priest.

A Step in the Right Direction

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

When your brother does something wrong, go and correct him. If it’s your sister who’s sinning, go and correct her!

Before we rush off on a moral crusade to change the world, though, we need to listen carefully to this Gospel.An octagonal red sign with STOP written in white capitals

Jesus is teaching about “your brother”, which means a fellow-member of the Church community. If we are all committed Catholics, then we will want to live our lives according to Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is calling us to correct other people who have signed up to the same standards as we have. When he preached his challenge to correct the sinner, he was preaching to a Jewish audience who had a shared moral code. In our First Reading, Ezekiel was called to rebuke Israel – the nation which had made a special promise to follow God’s laws – and those individuals God pointed out to him.

Note also that Jesus talks about your brother ‘doing something wrong’. Often we get upset about the things that other people haven’t done… we feel hurt, let down, disappointed. But we should be slow to rush to judgment on these matters, because there could be a thousand good reasons why your sister or brother couldn’t do that thing, even if they’d made a solemn promise. In these cases, we need to keep our anger in check and gently ask the reason why.

Many moral acts depend on our personal circumstances. Nevertheless, our bishops at the Second Vatican Council, and St John Paul II, taught that there are certain human actions which are always so bad that there can never be a reason to justify them. The technical name for these things is “intrinsic evils”.

It makes sense to me that God would give us a clear way to know right and wrong in each generation, when new moral questions arise. Jesus gave St Peter the authority to teach and strengthen his brothers, and I recognise that through this, God is asking us to trust each Pope to teach us morals. This needs a big act of humility to admit that I don’t know best by my own powers of reasoning – true Christian humility!

This week, the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was asked whether he believed abortion was wrong even when a woman had been made pregnant against her will. Rarely for a politician, he gave a straight answer – yes, even in those circumstances, he said, abortion was not permissible. Because it is an intrinsic evil, it’s not possible for any of the hard cases we can come up with to make it OK. Right now, the law still recognises this in Ireland, but there’s pressure for change there too.

There are other actions the Catholic Church says are always wrong: examples include use of a weapon of mass destruction, genocide, torture, human trafficking, any sexual act outside of a true marriage between a man and a woman, and any intervention which makes a fertile sexual act deliberately infertile. These, and more, are listed by St John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (no. 80), who reminds us the idea comes from St Paul, who wrote (Rom 3:8) that we “cannot do evil so that good may come of it”.

We believe in a God who longs to forgive us, but before we can be forgiven, we must repent. And before we can repent, we must recognise that there is something wrong in our behaviour. Perhaps we’re not comfortable with some of these church teachings. At a human level, we can come up with all sorts of counter-arguments. But as Catholic followers of Jesus, the question that really matters is: “What is God’s teaching here?”

Some of us instinctively think of right and wrong in terms of rules and duties. If God says something is wrong, even though we foresee tough consequences in hard cases, we might be willing to swallow this bitter pill because it seems logical that there’s no other way around things.

Many of us will think of right and wrong in terms of consequences… we ask what decision would cause least pain to others? It’s right to want to minimise pain and maximise happiness, and when we are choosing between two possible good courses of action which may have side-effects, that’s the way we naturally make decisions. But intrinsic evils are different – we cannot choose to do evil directly so that good may come.

St Paul reminds us (Rom 8:28) that God turns all things to the good for those who love Christ Jesus. When we look at the possible consequences of a moral choice, do those consequences include God stepping in to help those who make a heroic decision to do the hard thing and follow God’s law? If we don’t believe that, what does this say about our lack of trust in God?

Meanwhile, we live in a world that doesn’t share these moral values. Sometimes members of our own family, even those who were brought up Catholic, won’t share them. And if you’ve ever tried to impose your moral values on someone else, you’ll know that’s a hiding to nothing.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to correct those who are not our brothers and sisters in the Church. He asks us to share Good News with them. The Good News is Jesus is real, and willing to forgive anything they already sense they’ve done wrong. THAT must be our starting point. Later, they will ask about Jesus’ teaching, and then we can share hard truths, when they are ready and willing to hear it. But that’s not where we should begin.

Today’s Gospel is one of the most challenging instructions that Jesus has given us. In today’s Second Reading, we heard that all commandments are summed up by “love your neighbour as yourself”. True love is tough love – if you love a fellow Christian, help them to avoid sin and become a saint. After all, isn’t that what you would want for yourself?

To Know the Mind of God!

SERMON FOR THE CATHOLIC COMMUNITY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ESSEX21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

I’m in Essex this morning because I’m travelling – I’ve had a holiday in France and I’ll be spending the coming week with the Sion Community in Brentwood. That means that I haven’t seen my cat for three weeks. I did try to explain to him that I was going to be away for a month, but I don’t think he understood – the best I could do was a special tickle behind the ears before I left.

We human beings can do something my cat can’t – we can use language to communicate ideas. But sometimes even language fails. St Paul never met Our Lord when he was preaching and teaching on earth – it was only after Christ had ascended into heaven that St Paul was given a deep and mysterious vision. Whatever Paul saw, it turned him from someone who attacked Christians into the Number One defender of Christ!

Today’s Second Reading is from a long letter which Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome – a community he had never visited in person. He’s just finished a long section pondering the ways God has tried to communicate with human beings. God called Abraham to be the father of a chosen people, Moses to liberate the Israelites from slavery, and raised up countless prophets to remind the Kings of Israel that they must keep their Covenant with God in order to benefit from divine protection. Then God changed the deal, sending Jesus; although some of the Jews recognised him as their long-awaited Messiah, many others turned against him. Now Paul has come to understand that the message of Jesus is not only for the Jews, but for all people!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. If we started with a blank piece of paper and tried to work out how God might have communicated with human beings, would we have come up with a story like that, taking us from Abraham to Christ? Probably not! And do we human beings have more hope of understanding God’s plans, than my cat can understand that I am going away for a month but then returning? The good news is that not only do we have the gift of language, God has stooped down to our level to speak to us! In the person of Jesus, God became man to speak to us in human words and human actions! Not only that, but sometimes God speaks to us individually, giving us a moment of clarity or deeper understanding through prayer!

Today’s Gospel gives us an example. “Who do people say I am?” asks Jesus. St Peter nails it – “You are the Christ!” How does Peter know? God-the-Father has planted that knowledge deep in his soul!

Although God reveals some things to us, we don’t have the full understanding of things as God sees them. Here’s an example which might help. My cat is very good at praying. Whenever he sees me, he asks for food! If it’s the right time, I feed him… but since he’s a rather fat cat, sometimes the answer to his prayer has to be “not right now”. I don’t think he understands why he sometimes receives what he asks for, but not always. But I do know he keeps on praying!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. Before I became a priest, I was a professional astronomer – I have a PhD in astrophysics – so I ought to mention the famous quote by Professor Stephen Hawking. In his book, A Brief History of Time, he concludes by saying that if we had a full explanation of “why it is that we and the universe exist”, we would “know the mind of God”. Later, Hawking clarified that he doesn’t believe in God, but if we knew the rules that govern the Universe, and why they work the way they do, we would know everything that could be known.

Actually, Hawking is half right. The universe around us clearly obeys ordered rules which are, at some deep level, TRUE. Since all truths are part of God (Jesus said “I am the Truth”) then to know the laws of the Universe is to know part of the mind of God. But what Hawking would admit himself, if you pushed him, is that even if we knew those laws fully, we could never predict exactly what the universe, the earth, or an individual human life would look like; within those laws there is space for random outcomes, due to quantum mechanics, and for results that can’t be computed accurately enough, due to what mathematicians call chaotic behaviour, so that each human story remains a mystery to be unfolded only in the telling.

“Who can be God’s counsellor?” asks St Paul. Sometimes our prayers do tend towards giving God advice. “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking!” Or when we pray for our loved ones, do we explain their situation and problems to God? I’ll let you into a secret – God knows their problems already, even the ones you don’t know about! But God still appreciates the act of love which is you taking time to talk about them.

Last Wednesday the universal church celebrated St Rose of Lima – like St Paul, she sometimes received mystical visions. One led her to a deep understanding of why God permits human beings to suffer and how God would use it for good. A similar understanding came to a local Englishwoman, Mother Julian of Norwich, who confidently assures us that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

It would be nice if there were a God who stopped all pain and suffering in this life. But there’s no earthly religion which offers that – if there were, we would have all joined up long ago! That leaves only two possibilities – either there is no god, or there is a God who exists alongside this world with all its pains and problems. I wasn’t intentionally looking for God when my granny died – I was 11 years old – but when I cried out to any god who might be there to take care of her soul, something deep and mysterious happened which allowed me to make a connection with Jesus, to become a Catholic, and in due course, to become a priest. There’s no time now to tell my story in depth, but I’d be happy to do so informally, after Mass.

We do, however, believe that God has a plan to deal with pain and suffering. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he left us with a promise that one day he will return to remake the world, reversing death and banishing tears – a belief so fundamental that we affirm it every time we say the Creed. I don’t know whether Christ will come again before the happy day next month when my cat discovers that I have come home! But we are invited, as friends of Christ, to spend this life plumbing the depths of God, so that we can experience greater joy when we meet God in the world to come. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus, come!

Keep On Praying!

SERMON FOR THE PATRONAL FEAST OF ST MONICA – Wivenhoe, EssexProper Readings, plus Romans 11:33-36

I’m in Essex this morning because I’m travelling – I’ve had a holiday in France and I’ll be spending the coming week with the Sion Community in Brentwood. That means that I haven’t seen my cat for three weeks. I did try to explain to him that I was going to be away for a month, but I don’t think he understood – the best I could do was a special tickle behind the ears before I left.

We human beings can do something my cat can’t – we can use language to communicate ideas. But sometimes even language fails. St Paul never met Our Lord when he was preaching and teaching on earth – it was only after Christ had ascended into heaven that St Paul was given a deep and mysterious vision. Whatever Paul saw, it turned him from someone who attacked Christians into the Number One defender of Christ!

Today’s Second Reading is from a long letter which Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome – a community he had never visited in person. He’s just finished a long section pondering the ways God has tried to communicate with human beings. God first called the Jewish people to a special relationship with him, a covenant relationship, through Abraham, Moses, and countless prophets after the reign of King David. Then God sent Jesus; although some of the Jews recognised him as their long-awaited Messiah, many others turned against him. Now Paul has come to understand that the message of Jesus is not only for the Jews, but for all people!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. If we started with a blank piece of paper and tried to work out how God might have communicated with human beings, would we have come up with a story like that, taking us from Abraham to Christ? Probably not! And do we human beings have more hope of understanding God’s plans, than my cat can understand that I am going away for a month but then returning? The good news is that not only do we have the gift of language, God has stooped down to our level to speak to us! In the person of Jesus, God became man to speak to us in human words and human actions! Not only that, but sometimes God speaks to us individually, giving us a moment of clarity or deeper understanding through prayer!

Today we are celebrating a woman of prayer, St Monica, from whom this church community takes its name. She is most famous for the years she spent praying that her wayward son, Augustine, would become a faithful Christian. After many years she was rewarded – Augustine had a moment of clarity when God spoke to him, “Take and Read!” He picked up the scroll closest to hand, which was none other than St Paul’s Letter to the Romans! He was so convicted of the message that God was real, God loved him, and could forgive his wicked ways, that he was soon baptised as a Christian and went on to become perhaps the greatest scholar of the first Christian Millennium.

Today, though, we should focus not on the son but on the mother. St Monica was a great woman of faith, supporting a husband and two sons who didn’t always share her beliefs. She persevered, acting in faith when she could, and praying for the people she loved to come to know Jesus Christ, too.

“Who can be God’s counsellor?” asks St Paul. Sometimes our prayers do tend towards giving God advice. “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking!” Or when we pray for our loved ones, do we explain their situation and problems to God? I’ll let you into a secret – God knows their problems already, even the ones you don’t know about! But God still appreciates the act of love which is you taking time to talk about them.

Jesus taught us to persevere in praying for things, and St Monica is a perfect example of praying faithfully that other members of our family should come to know Christ. If we have grown tired of praying for our own family members and friends, today is an invitation to begin again. And if we have experienced disappointment in our prayers not being answered, we need to be humble enough to trust God’s timing.

Here’s an example which might help. My cat is very good at praying. Whenever he sees me, he asks for food! If it’s the right time, I feed him… but since he’s a rather fat cat, sometimes the answer to his prayer has to be “not right now”. I don’t think he understands why he sometimes receives what he asks for, but not always. But I do know he keeps on praying!

Our first reading today was a Jewish reflection on what makes an “ideal wife”. Sometimes the Bible teaches us values which must be held by all Christians in all cultures and circumstances – but in other places it reflects the values of the people at the time of writing. I’m not going to suggest that our first reading is a template for all the married ladies here this morning! But every Bible passage can be read in a spiritual wife, and a “wife” in the Bible can represent a church community, since the church is the Bride of Christ.

A patron saint’s day is a perfect opportunity for this church community to ask: “What kind of wife am I to Christ?” Are we a “chaste” community? That means, are we faithful to Jesus or do we let other values – money, sex or power – lead us astray? Are we, like St Monica, praying for our “prodigal sons” to return – and not only those in your blood family, but also those in your church family? And being a “silent” wife doesn’t mean that we keep schtum when we see problems in the community around us – but it does mean that it’s not our place to contradict our husband. If Christ, or the church leaders he has given us, ask us to do difficult things, our role is to do our best to fulfil them.

I’m very conscious today of being a visitor on a day which is central to the identity of this community. I don’t know the joys and sorrows which are the story of St Monica’s. So I can’t comment on any specific issues. I’ll be moving on – and that means there will be a happy day next month when my cat discovers that I have come home and probably gets an extra portion of food to celebrate! I will leave you with this question to ponder: If the Second Coming happened today, what would Our Lord find to correct, or to congratulate, in St Monica’s?