50 Years of Renewal in the Holy Spirit

On the eve of Pentecost, a small group of pilgrims from across Wales kept vigil with Pope Francis. We weren’t on our own – we were with 40,000 other Catholics from around the world, who had heeded the Pope’s invitation to come to Rome especially for Pentecost. But why?

Charisms in the Life of the Church

At the first Pentecost, Our Lady, St Peter and the other Apostles experienced a powerful outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit. They were filled with a new courage, enabling them to go into the public square and speak about Jesus. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that Peter and Paul laid hands on new disciples who responded by prophesying and praying in unlearned tongues. The new enthusiasm that these gifts brought caused some new Christians to be quite unruly in prayer meetings – St Paul dealt with this at length in his First Letter to the Corinthians.

For the first three hundred years of the Catholic Church, these gifts, together with various healing gifts, seem to have been quite common, but over the centuries they became rarer and were eventually seen as the hallmarks of truly exceptional saints, the likes of Catherine of Siena or Pio of Pietrelcina. At the close of the 19th century, however, an Italian nun, Blessed Elena Guerra, felt called to ask Pope Leo XIII to seek a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Pope Leo not only used the Veni Creator at the opening of the new century, but wrote a number of encyclical letters on the Holy Spirit, and promoted the use of a novena of prayers on the nine days before Pentecost.

In the first decade of the 20th century, remarkable things occurred. On New Year’s Day 1901 – the very day on which Pope Leo had invoked the Holy Spirit over the worldwide church – a woman named Agnes Ozman asked her congregation to lay hands on her so she could become a missionary. There, in a tiny Protestant church in Topeka, Kansas, she was covered in the glory of the Holy Spirit, and found herself unable to speak or write English, only Chinese (which she had never learned), for three days! A world-famous revival took place in Wales in 1904, where several preachers found their words had unusual power to call people to church and turn away from sin – crime rates plummeted across our nation. Two years later, under the preaching of a minister trained in Topeka, the Azusa Street Mission in California experienced an outpouring similar to what we see described in the New Testament, and from that seed grew the networks of what we now call Pentecostal churches.

Another Pope, St John XXIII, called the world to pray anew for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit in preparation for the Second Vatican Council. The Council closed in December 1965. Just over a year later, some Catholic students made a retreat in Pittsburgh, USA – and 50 years later, two of those students came to Rome to recall what happened next.

The Golden Jubilee Celebrations

David Mangan and Patti Gallagher Mansfield stand at a pulpitDavid Mangan and Patti Gallagher Mansfield were among a group of students making a retreat based on the Acts of the Apostles in February 1967. They were the most enthusiastic members when the leader proposed an act of renewing their confirmation; others were less keen. That evening, when they separately stepped into the chapel, they experienced the power of God’s presence so strongly that they were compelled to fall prostrate; soon, half the students on the retreat came to the chapel, and experienced the same powerful presence. Many prayed in tongues for the first time.

A third speaker on Friday night, Vinson Synon, represented worldwide Pentecostal churches, and spoke of his own journey of conversion from doubting that Catholics were really Christian through to being forced to accept that they had received the very same gifts known in Pentecostal churches for the past 60 years.

David, Patti and their fellow-students were not founders of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal; they were not personally responsible for spreading it to all the places where it quickly flourished. But they stood on a platform in Rome 50 years later as the first fruits of this vast current of grace poured out on Catholics around the world – and 40,000 Catholics from 128 nations rejoiced with them as representatives of what God had done.

The following afternoon, the participants gathered again at Circus Maximus – a location chosen personally by Pope Francis because so many early Christians had given their lives there as witnesses to Christ. This time, leaders from around the world spoke of how the Holy Spirit continued to change lives today – including a testimony from England’s Damian Stayne about the many healings experienced through the ministry of the Cor et Lumen Christi Community. Papal Preacher fra Raniero Cantalamessa reminded all present that Pentecost was a reversal of Babel – there, humanity rejoiced in its own creative power, but as Christians we acknowledge with gratitude the gifts that come from God. Pope Francis himself spoke of the importance of a “reconciled diversity” – the Spirit brings many gifts and we are to recognise, and rejoice, that other individuals and communities are also gifted by God for the work of the church.

The seeds of this great gathering were planted when, just a year after his election as Pope, Francis spoke to a gathering of Italian charismatics in the national stadium and said “I expect all of you, charismatics from around the world, to celebrate your great jubilee with the pope at Pentecost 2017 in St Peter’s Square!” And indeed, not only did the Pope come to the gathering at Circus Maximus, but 40,000 charismatic pilgrims went to St Peter’s for the Wednesday Audience and Mass on Pentecost Sunday.

What else should a Pentecost Jubilee event contain? We cannot require the Holy Spirit to work to our schedules, so inevitably there was a heavy focus on recognising what God has already done. The Friday evening vigil was largely recalling the history of how the Catholic Renewal began – with the pioneers now entering their 70s, this is perhaps the last major occasion where they will be able to testify in person. Saturday was an acknowledgement of our unity-in-diversity, including strong participation from non-Catholic leaders. The organisers commissioned a song contest and an art exhibition – and also offered a workshop on how to propose early pioneers of Renewal as candidates for beatification and sainthood! Many of the other workshops were filmed and can be viewed online.

The TransCambrian Pilgrims

Our small pilgrimage from Wales attended the larger events, but there was not room for all of us to attend the smaller venues, such as the first Mass at St Mary Major or the Ecumenical Congress on Friday morning. Apart from the scheduled events, we took the opportunity to visit venues that connected us with the experience of the early generations of Christian believers, to whom the power of the first Pentecost was still a living reality. On Friday morning we visited the Catacombs of St Priscilla – perhaps not the most famous catacombs in Rome, but the ones most accessible to the one member of our group who relied on a wheelchair.

We chose not to depart Rome hurriedly after Mass with Pope Francis on Pentecost Sunday; rather, on Monday morning we recalled how the first Christians met in house-churches by visiting the remains of such a church under the Basilica of Saints John and Paul (the martyrs named next to Cosmas and Damian in the First Eucharistic Prayer). Finally, we had our own experience of celebrating Mass in a small space, at the Chapel of St John in Oil – this marks the place where tradition has it that the Romans attempted to martyr St John the Apostle in boiling oil, but God miraculously preserved him. We took lunch at the Rosminian House at Porta Latina, mindful that Rosminian missionaries renewed the Catholic Church in South Wales at the end of the 19th Century, and continue to serve several Cardiff parishes today.

There are many ironies about this pilgrimage. Pope Francis invited us to join him at St Peter’s – but then sent us to Circus Maximus for the main events. We recalled St Peter’s sermon which was understood by all on the Day of Pentecost – but relied on FM radios for simultaneous translation at the two main events. We celebrated the Holy Spirit’s charisms of healing – but ensured that the pilgrimage would be accessible for anyone using a wheelchair. We were called to celebrate our “unity in diversity” – but worldwide Catholic Charismatics are still working on merging their two representative bodies, ICCRS and the Catholic Fraternity, into one. Pentecost is the third great feast of the Christian year, but unlike Easter and Christmas has no “tide” of its own. Yet the season for living out Pentecost exists! It is called “Ordinary Time” – but one where Christians are called to use extraordinary charisms for the building up of the Church. And these gifts are not meant to be brought together in Rome, but spread to the ends of the earth. Veni Sancti Spiritus! Come, Holy Spirit, come! Dewch, Ysbryd Glân, dewch!

Save Us From the Fires of Hell

Homily at Christ the King for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A.

“Pray and make sacrifices, because so many souls go to Hell…”

Those are not my words, but the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to St Jacinta Martos and her cousin, Lucia dos Santos.

One hundred years ago this weekend, these children, with Jacinta’s brother, St Francisco, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary while they were tending sheep outside the village of Fatima, in Portugal. It was to be the first of six visions spread over six months. In the course of those visions, Our Lady of Fatima showed the children a vision of Hell and promised to take them to Heaven. She warned that many souls were in danger of going to Hell because they were not leading the right kind of life. She asked the children to offer up sacrifices so that God would give to those souls the grace of conversion – enough grace to carry them all the way to Heaven.Grey statutes of the Fatima children, Jacinta (seated) and Francisco (standing_

The Gospel we’ve heard today is very familiar – it’s the one most commonly chosen for Catholic funerals. There’s a very positive message: Jesus has prepared a room in heaven for each person on earth. But that doesn’t guarantee that every soul will arrive in the place prepared for them. We never claim the soul of any person, other than an infant, goes directly to heaven until that person has been canonised – so we rejoice that the Church has canonised St Jacinta and St Francisco this weekend. At a funeral, we presume the soul is on the way to heaven, but may benefit from our prayers to help the soul pass through Purgatory more swiftly. The message of Fatima challenges us to pray another kind of prayer, a prayer which saves souls alive on earth today from going to Hell.

There are deep mysteries here. First of all, why does God need us to pray for sinners to be converted? Why doesn’t God just convert them?

Last weekend we marked Good Shepherd Sunday, a day to remember that Jesus called us to pray for the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to the harvest. The “labourers” can mean priests, but can also mean any Christian souls willing to invite other people to become members of the Church.

God has so much respect for us, as members of the body of Christ, that He invites us to be part of His great plan – His plan for more shepherds, and His plan for the sheep.

The second mystery is whether it can really be true that souls are in so much danger of going to Hell? Didn’t Jesus say in today’s Gospel that he had gone ahead of us to prepare the way to Heaven? Indeed he did – and he explained to St Thomas that the way to get there is to follow him!

Among people who are not church members, many today believe that this life on earth is all we’ve got, so we should make the most of it while we still can. We have a message for them – God has so much more in store!

Within the church, we have a bigger problem. Two whole generations of Catholics have grown up with the impression that God is a kindly grandpa who looks the other way when we choose to sin, and throws open the gates of heaven when we die. That’s false! That’s cherry-picking some bits of the Gospels. Yes, the Father of the prodigal son ran to meet him, but not until the son had come to his senses and resolved to go and apologise to his father!

Third, why does God need our sufferings? Today’s Scripture says we are a holy priesthood offering sacrifices to God, and that by doing so we build up God’s house. The greatest sacrifice of all was Jesus dying on the Cross – but because baptism makes us members of Christ’s body, we can offer own little sacrifices as our contribution to this work. This is the priestly work that ALL members of the church are called to undertake.

How do we do this? The children of Fatima were taught a prayer that they could say whenever they voluntarily accepted any hardship, rather than choosing to complain: “Oh my Jesus, it is for love of you and in reparation for sins against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”

Daily life will send us plenty of material for sacrifice. Sometimes, we have to sacrifice our pride to let well-meaning people help us. Sometimes we have to go the extra mile to do a favour which is not onerous but certainly inconvenient, helping a family member, friend, or stranger. Sometimes, life sends us physical aches and pains – these too can be material for sacrifice rather than complaint

Each of the three children of Fatima had a different calling. Lucia is not yet canonized. She lived until 2005, and her case is still being investigated: she remained on earth as a witness. Her two cousins both died in the Spanish ‘Flu which swept Europe before 1920. Our Lady said that she would take Jacinta to Heaven – and Francisco, who saw the vision but did not hear the words – would go to Heaven too, but first he would have to pray “many rosaries”!

So, my dear friends in Christ, let us not take Heaven for granted. We rejoice today that Jesus has opened the way – but to get there we must follow Him, and for others to get there, they must follow Him too. Let us not forget to pray that many people will indeed choose to start following Jesus on earth, and so find the way to their home in heaven. If we add daily sacrifices to our prayer, we will be doing something most pleasing to Our Lady – but we will only find out what great fruit our prayers bring when we reach that heavenly home prepared for us.

St Jacinta – pray for us!

St Francisco – pray for us!

Our Lady of Fatima – pray for us!

First Communion

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A.

Children, this is a very special weekend, one I hope you will remember for the rest of your life. It is special for two reasons. First, because it is the weekend when you will make your First Holy Communion. But secondly – and you might have seen this in the news already – because it is the weekend Pope Francis declared two children to be saints.

Those children were Francisco, aged 8, and Jacinta, aged 7, when 100 years ago this weekend they saw the Virgin Mary for the first time. She appeared five more times to them that year. But this wasn’t the first time something amazing happened to them. The previous year, they had three visions of an angel – and the third time, the angel gave them Holy Communion – it was their First Holy Communion, given to them from Heaven!Grey statue of an angel holding a Host and Chalice

The angel explained that there were lots of people in the world who didn’t believe in Jesus or were even rude to Jesus, and this makes God very sad. There are many people who don’t treat each other with respect and kindness too, and this also offends Jesus, because Jesus lives, hidden, in every human being – including those we are rude to. But there is something we can do to make up for this.

When we come into the presence of Jesus’ body and blood – and remember, every Catholic Church has a tabernacle where we keep Jesus’ body – we can say a special prayer. We can say: “Jesus, I love you, and I am so sorry for the people who ignore you or are rude to you.”

But wouldn’t it be so much better if the people who were rude to Jesus, or don’t care about Him, started caring and loving Him? The angel asked the children to pray for this to happen – we call this conversion. The angel taught them another prayer: “Heavenly Father! Jesus is holy, remember how much he loves us! You kept our Mother Mary free of all sin, remember how much she loves us! Because of their love, convert many souls to love Jesus and Mary in return!”

Then, when the angel gave the children Holy Communion, he said: “Eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, who is so hurt by seeing how ungrateful people are. Say prayers to make up for them and show your love for God.”

Jacinta and Francisco took the angel’s message seriously. They looked for ways they could help other people, and when they gave away some of their time, or the things they owned, to help someone else, they said “Jesus, it is for love of you and Mary, so you can convert sinners.” But they didn’t live for very long.

In those days, we hadn’t invented the medicines we have today, and there was a terrible outbreak of ‘flu across Europe. By the year 1920, three years after Our Lady had appeared, both of the children had died. And yet, although neither of them lived long enough to become teenagers, this weekend Pope Francis has declared that they lived such holy lives we can call them saints. This means you are not too young to live as saints, too! But to be saints you must keep remembering to tell Jesus that you love him.

Now, a word to the grown-ups here today. Many of you have come to support these First Communion children – thank you for being with us. Maybe this story sounds very far-fetched to you. Even for Catholics, many of us will be thinking “Can it really be true that an angel appeared from heaven and gave Communion to these children? Can things like that really happen?”

During the last 200 years, there have been many claims that the Virgin Mary has appeared from Heaven. The Catholic Church has investigated these and found 15 of the cases to be worthy of belief. In those places, many people have experienced their prayers being answered in powerful ways; some have claimed miraculous healings. Lourdes and Fatima are the most famous places, but there are others. Even so, no Catholic is required to believe that these things really happened – it’s just that the Pope or the local Bishops think there’s really good evidence that the claims are true.

There is one thing all Catholics ARE required to believe, though. It’s that on Easter Sunday, two days after being nailed to a Cross, Jesus Christ walked through a locked door, without opening it, and showed himself to his friends. If that’s true, it makes the meal Jesus celebrated the night before he died, the Last Supper, the most significant dinner ever eaten on Earth. If it’s true, then the God of the Universe is inviting each of these children here today – and inviting all of you, too – to be fed by him every weekend in your nearest Catholic Church.

Receiving communion is a holy gift – this is why our children have to prepare by making their First Confession. This is why we don’t offer every guest Holy Communion; to receive God’s gift of love we must first sort out our lifestyle, and make sure we are trying to live the way Jesus asked us. That includes being in obedience to the Pope, which is why we don’t offer communion to Christians from Protestant churches – and also includes being married if we are in a partnership. Why are we so protective of Holy Communion? It’s because even when it comes at the hands of priest rather than an angel, we still believe it is God’s gift from Heaven. But if something in your heart is stirred by what you have heard today, maybe God is inviting you to become a Catholic – for 100 years now, those who believe in the message of Fatima have been praying for you!

So children, I’m going to stop preaching now so we can move to our prayers and ask Jesus to become present on this altar. But because of what the Pope has done this weekend, we can make a little bit of history. We can do something we’ve never done in St Philip Evans Church before this weekend. There’s a Catholic rule that says when someone is declared ‘Blessed’ you can only ask for their help in a public church service in their own country, but once they are declared to be a ‘Saint’, you can call upon them at Mass in any church in the world. So on this weekend of firsts, join me in our responses:

St Jacinta – pray for us!
St Francisco – pray for us!
Our Lady of Fatima – pray for us!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

Deaneries for Growth and Mission!

For the foreseeable future, the Catholic Church in England and Wales faces a double decline: in the number of priests available and in the number of active lay members. By global standards, we enjoy a high number of priests for every Catholic: according to current data (May 2017) we have 1.18 priests for every thousand Catholics, which ranks us 24th out of the 157 territories tabulated.

This doesn’t seem so bad, but we have a structural problem. The 1960s and 70s were marked by a surge in the number of men coming forward for the priesthood and a period of urban expansion in many British cities. (On the same statistical table we have 1.82 priests per parish, ranking us 88th in the world, but the statistics hide the ratio of “able” to “non-working” priests) The same period was also marked by the post-Vatican-II relaxations which allowed Sunday Mass on a Saturday evening, and only an hour’s fast before communion, making Sunday evening Masses viable.

We now find ourselves in a position where we have built an unsustainable network of small parishes with many Sunday* Masses. As the number of priests falls back to a more typical historical level, we cannot sustain all of these Masses (nor indeed the current pattern of daily Masses). Each scheduled Sunday Mass in a given location has its own “regulars”, not all of whom will transfer to another Mass if that slot is removed or merged. When a Mass venue is closed, even more regulars are likely to be lost. Many Catholics have a strong emotional attachment to the building they see as their “family church” and only a weak attachment to “the mission of the church” as a whole, so closing a building can have devastating consequences.

As the number of worshipping Catholics falls, coupled with demographic trends that mean more women are in employment, elderly people work to a greater age, and grandparents face increasing pressure to assist with child care, the volunteer force of lay people able to sustain parish activity is also being squeezed. Since each parish seeks to maintain a basic minimum level of service for the sacraments – baptism of infants, first communion, confirmation, adult instruction, care of the sick and housebound – the dwindling pool of volunteers will face increasing pressure to deliver these services at the expense of other tasks which are intrinsically important but more likely to be viewed as “optional” – adult religious education, evangelistic activities, dialogue with members of other faiths, and work with poor and needy members of the community.

In some places, team ministry has been tried. Anecdotal evidence suggests this only works effectively when a group of priests voluntarily comes together and embraces a deep level of co-operation; most diocesan priests work in a highly individualistic way. The promise of obedience is lived out mainly when the bishop gives a priest a new assignment, not in day-to-day matters; and without spare manpower, a bishop has few strategies with which to sanction an uncooperative priest. Few parishes have the benefit of a curate, so in most parishes one priest is responsible for everything. Cover priests are not easy to find, so priests may have difficulty taking their allowed holidays of one month per year, and without resident help, many priests may also struggle to preserve a meaningful day off.

Permanent deacons can assist with the load of baptisms, weddings and funerals, but problems can occur when a new parish priest moves into a parish with a deacon and for some reason fails to establish a good working relationship with that deacon. This may be due to personality clashes, or a lack of openness on the priest’s part to the ministry of deacons.

When one priest alone is responsible for a parish, carrying all the sick calls and funerals, this inevitably limits that priest’s capacity to be strategic and to offer more to the parish than the basics. Priests may also have diocesan responsibilities which further eat into their time. The famous Revd James Mallon, whose parish in Halifax, Canada, is a beacon of good parish ministry, is on record as saying he was only able to be strategic because he had an associate pastor carrying the load of funerals and sick visiting.

Bishops face structural problems of how to manage their dioceses with dwindling resources. One approach is to spread the priests as thinly as possible, with every priest carrying a full load of Sunday Masses, usually in several different locations, sometimes responsible for two or three canonical parishes. This strains still further the ability of the priest to be strategic. The other approach is to impose radical closures of buildings and parishes; this relieves the pressure on priests but demoralises the people.

Buildings themselves also cause difficulties. The Church exists, in theory, to spread the Gospel and enable people to become effective disciples of Christ. In practice, many Catholics have a strong sense of “belonging” to an institution and will work hard to preserve cherished buildings and Mass arrangements. When mergers take place, what happens when a parish in debt is merged with one with a huge surplus? Should the assets of St Peter’s be used to pay the parish debt of St Paul’s, or does that offend a sense of natural justice? We are also not good at making hard decisions about buildings in the face of declining parish revenue, meaning a higher and higher proportion of income ends up being used to sustain property.

Is there a kind of solution we haven’t tried yet? Perhaps there is…

Imagine that a diocese were totally restructured in the following way. I will refer to the new structures as Mparishes and Mdeaneries. The M stands for “mission”, and allows us to distinguish the Mparishes of the new structure from the pre-existing parishes which would make way for them.

Any workable strategy must be based on the following principles:

1. We cannot sustain every existing Sunday Mass, which is a distinct congregation meeting at a particular place and time. Fewer priests means this is physically impossible.

2. We probably can plan for every existing church and Mass centre to retain one Sunday Mass. In a given diocese this will depend on the projected number of priests, and the current number of venues, but in many local circumstances will be doable.

3. Each venue shall have ONLY one Sunday Mass, unless the bishop recognises a genuine need for more than one. But each venue must explore all possible ways of fitting everyone into a single Sunday celebration, e.g. by using a video relay into its hall or hiring a larger building on Sundays. Gathering everyone together at ONE Mass is not only a way of using a priest’s time more efficiently, but also of unifying the local Catholic population and making the most efficient use of volunteers.

4. Each venue shall have a designated parish priest. Team ministry experiments show that other arrangements are generally unpopular and ineffective.

5. In order to ensure that missionary priorities are not lost under the burden of parish management, a significant number of diocesan priests will be appointed Deans and will not be assigned to parishes, but to the missionary development of their deaneries.

What would happen in practice when we apply these principles?

Three or four existing parishes will be gathered into one Mparish, sharing a parish priest. While there may be a short term need to allow the distinct parishes to retain their canonical identities, and independent bank accounts, the aim will be that the Mparish becomes the canonical parish in due course. There is a working presumption that activities (e.g. first communion course, social events) are to be held jointly between parishes insofar as the geography allows this. Priests should not duplicate administrative structures more than necessary. However, each worshipping assembly may need its own liturgy planning group.

Five or six Mparishes are constituted as an Mdeanery. A senior priest is appointed as dean, and key to this strategy is that the dean is NOT a parish priest of any of the parishes, but has faculties to act in all of them.

The Dean’s inalienable responsibilities are:

  • Welfare of the clergy – sharing a meal with each cleric in the deanery individually at least once a month
  • Liaison with the bishop – meeting the bishop corporately or individually once or twice each month
  • Co-ordination of weekday Mass times, at least in urban areas, to ensure the widest choice during the whole day
  • Co-ordinating clergy holidays and himself covering Sunday Masses when one of the other priests is away
  • Covering for each other priest on one weekday in turn, so each priest can have a day off free of all public duties
  • Possibly Baptism Preparation, and baptism for families not actively worshipping in any church

The Dean is also responsible for the following, unless it seems appropriate to delegate them to another priest in the deanery:

  • Chaplain to Secondary Schools and other institutions spanning several parishes in the deanery
  • Adult Religious Education and evangelistic outreach (Alpha or similar events)
  • Retreats for extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion
  • The Confirmation programme across the whole deanery
  • Arrangements for Christmas Vigil Masses and Easter Morning Masses using the biggest possible venues, even borrowed ones

By giving these duties to the Dean, the parish priests experience the same kind of relief that might come of having a curate; and it ensures that important ministries which cannot be the highest priority in individual parishes are nevertheless prioritised.

When the restructure takes place, each permanent deacon can choose to be associated with a particular Mparish priest or to be at the direct service of the Dean, allowing a workaround for personality clashes.

The Dean can choose to be “in residence” with one of the parish priests or live independently in another presbytery; this will depend on the dean’s personal relationship with the available priests.

There will be a deanery bank account, funded by fees paid by each parish for the Dean’s supply work.

New Mass times must be chosen in such a way that in case of necessity, the Mdeanery can cover all its services with two priests absent (since for half the year at least the Dean will be covering for one priest’s planned absence). This means that in a group of a Dean plus five priests there can be at most 12 Masses on Sunday itself, and 8 on Saturday evening, in such a way that the priests can do 2 each on Saturday evening and 3 each on the Sunday. Each of the five Mparishes has either one Saturday evening Mass and three on Sunday, or two Saturday evening Masses with only two on Sunday. When all priests are at work, the Dean can assist with a couple of Sunday Masses for each parish in turn, prioritising situations where a parish priest would otherwise have to develop two different sermons for a given weekend (e.g. where one Mass includes some sacrament of initiation).

The second key to this strategy is that each church building has its own internal account with the diocesan finance office. Already, in English law, a parish is “owned” by the trustees of the diocese, though canon law protects the right of each parish to manage its own assets. When a parish merger takes place, buildings from a parish in debt accrue an internal debt to the diocese; parishes with a healthy bank account have part of that balance lodged against each building. All major expenses relating to that building (insurance, major repairs, safety inspections, interest on building loans etc.) are paid directly by the diocese from that account. In return, each Mparish pays a “rent” to the diocese each year to use each of its buildings. This creates an “internal market” which can force parishes to look at whether using its existing buildings is the most affordable method; each building will have designated “amber flag” and “red flag” percentages of parish income. When the proportion reaches “amber” the parish has two years to find a cheaper way of celebrating Mass. When it reaches red, the diocese denies permission to use the building, forcing use of a cheaper, if less fitting, venue. This stick is coupled with the carrot of promoting a missionary ethos which sees the purpose of the church to make disciples, not maintain buildings.

Choosing to adopt this new structure of Mparishes and Mdeaneries offers a third option falling between the radical closure of parishes and the usual tensions of parish mergers. It seeks to avoid the cessation of worship in any given locations, though may require use of a non-traditional space for worship (overflow or hired large hall) in that location. It will force most of the diocesan priests to spread themselves even thinner than if some of their number did not become Mdeans but at the same time offers significant relief from the pressures of being priest across several parishes, with guaranteed cover for holidays, weekly days off, and support for local ministry. I offer this to the Church as a possible solution which, to my knowledge, has not been tried.

* A “Sunday Mass” in this context includes any Mass from 4 pm onward on a Saturday evening celebrated with the intent of letting worshippers fulfil their Sunday obligation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking Away

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Year A.

Are you ready to walk away from Jesus?

Those two disciples on the road to Emmaus were downcast and had low expectations.

Jesus was dead.

Hope was dead.

Their faith was shattered. It was time to go home. It was time to walk away.

When he celebrated the Last Supper, Jesus warned his friends that they would fall away from him. “No Lord, I will never deny you!” said Peter. But before 24 hours had passed, he had denied Jesus three times and walked away from the Cross. It’s easy to be like Peter – “Lord, even if everyone else walks away, I will never abandon you.” But solemnly, I say to  you here today, that before the month of May is out, some of you will walk away from Jesus.

In the coming month, we will celebrate five First Communion Masses. That means lots of guests will join us for Sunday Mass. It might mean those services take us out of our comfort zone. Some of our guests won’t be used to church at all and might do things we find awkward – eating, drinking, not respecting silences – God forbid, someone might actually sit in the place you normally sit! Some latecomers might find that it is standing room only.

Last year we adopted a Parish MISSION STATEMENT. It says: The parish of St Philip Evans is a welcoming Catholic community… we care for those in need and spread the message of Christ.

This coming month, it’s time for us to put this statement into practice. To be a “welcoming Catholic community” we have to turn up with good will and make our guests very welcome. In order to spread the message of Christ, we must first love and welcome people who don’t yet know him.

In past months I have talked about some very general expectations. Now I have a very specific one to share with you. As your parish priest, if St Philip Evans is the church you normally come to for Mass, I expect you to be here for the First Communion weekends. If you are in good health, I expect you to stand so guests can sit. If you can help with something practical – welcoming, taking the collection – we will need extra helpers. Resist the temptation to say “It’s going to be packed, I am going somewhere else.” Jesus is coming to visit this parish! He is coming hidden in our guests, people who may not even know they are made in his image. But the way we welcome any guest is the way we welcome Christ himself. Resist the temptation to walk away from Jesus.

There is another temptation we must beware of. Parents, many of you will be tempted not to bother coming to Mass once your children have made their First Communion.

I ask you: do you believe that the Sacred Host, the wafer that your children will soon receive, is truly the Body of Jesus who died on the cross, rose from the dead, and is the One who will judge the human race at the end of time?

I know what many of you are thinking right now. “You don’t have to go to church to be a good person.”

You are correct! There are millions of good people in the world who care for others and never go near a church during their life! But that’s the answer to the wrong question.

Do you have to go to church to be a God person?

Do you have to come to Holy Communion to be a friend of Jesus?

It’s not always easy to understand what God wants. How long had Cleopas and his companion been listening to Jesus preach before they got that personal tuition on the road to Emmaus? But then their eyes were opened when Jesus broke bread! Then they knew that the greatest news in human history was true!

I wish I could spend a day with each First Communion family, to talk about the questions you have about God, and what Jesus wants to offer you personally. I wish I had time to do for each one of you what Jesus did for Cleopas and his friend. With them, Jesus didn’t preach, he just asked “tell me about this Jesus, you had so much hope in, what was his message?” He started where they were at, and drew them deeper into his love.

By the end of their walk, those two disciples understood the message. God sent Jesus as a baby. When he grew up he worked miracles. He rose from the dead to give us FAITH (the knowledge that God is real) and HOPE (the knowledge that Heaven is open and waiting for the friends of Jesus). Those two disciples had hoped for an earthly kingdom. Only now did they realise that they were called to Heaven. Only when Jesus broke the bread, did their hearts understand who was with them!

I can’t give you what Jesus gave them. I can’t make your hearts burn within you when you hear the gospel or a great sermon. I can’t open your eyes during the breaking of bread today, so that you know beyond doubt that Jesus is here. I can’t make you so excited about Jesus that you run seven miles in the dark to go to a place where Mass was celebrated. But Jesus can.

Who gets into heaven? The friends of Jesus get into heaven. Good people who never knew him on earth can make friends with Jesus at the gate of heaven. But what about us? Jesus wants to make us his friends on earth.

Parents, I know that by the end of June, many of you will have walked away from Jesus. You will have enjoyed your child’s First Communion and you will want your weekend back to do other things. Jesus loves you. As long as you live on earth he will be ready to forgive you for walking away and will welcome you back when you are ready to come back to Church. But don’t leave it until the day you meet him as a Judge at the gates of heaven.

Better still, don’t walk away at all. God’s people, who know that Jesus wants to feed us every Sunday in Holy Communion, don’t walk away from Mass. We need you in this parish of St Philip Evans – with you worshipping with us every week, we are stronger.

So I say to you again: This coming month, we will all be tempted to walk away from Jesus. Let’s resist that temptation. Let’s put our faith in Jesus and encourage one another. It is time to make this parish our home. Let’s walk to heaven together.

 

 

 

 

If You Really Loved Me…

Homily at the Celebrate Catholic Family Conference in Cardiff – Feast of St Catherine of Siena

What would you do if you really loved me?

That might seem like a strange question – especially to those of you who haven’t met me before today. Yet we seem very capable of providing other people with answers:

  • If you really loved me, you’d be ready on time.
  • If you really loved me, you’d remember my birthday.
  • If you really loved me, you’d call more often.

Let’s face it, none of us like being nagged into doing things by other people. And they clearly don’t understand the pressures I am under. That’s why I wasn’t ready, didn’t call, forgot your birthday. I do care, honest!

In fact, while we are busy telling other people how to love us, what about God?

  • If you really loved me, you wouldn’t have let my granny die yet.
  • If you really loved me, you’d have stopped me getting ill.
  • If you really loved me, you’d have kept my family together.

Whoa! Listen to the words of St John. “God is light, there is no darkness in him at all.”

In the Old Testament, the Book of Job tells the story of a man suddenly afflicted by every possible woe short of death. Job refuses to curse God but does put his complaint into a prayer. God’s only answer is to ask Job, “Can you create a universe and keep it running?”- it reminds me of the scene in the film Bruce Almighty where Bruce, who is standing in for God, tries to answer every prayer on earth with a Yes at the same time, and chaos breaks out.

Seems to me we’re not given the option of believing in a God who runs the world the way we would like it to be, Perhaps God can’t fix everything to everyone’s satisfaction. If God could only fix one thing for you, what would it be? Might it be death itself? What if God could fix things so we could live for ever in a place of happiness? What if God could find some way of forgiving our sins and opening the door to heaven?

Oh… hang on, wasn’t it Easter a couple of weeks ago? This sounds rather familiar.

Every time we celebrate Mass, at the heart of the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest declares: The Mystery of Faith! This is an invitation for us to declare that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. But it also reminds us of another mystery, that those of us gathered at the Lord’s table have been given this gift called faith! We are the “mere children” to whom Jesus showed his Father, not like the grown-up people who think they are too sophisticated to believe in God.

If you are familiar with C. S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles you might remember the terrible phrase in the later books – “Susan was no longer a friend of Narnia”. A woman who had once believed in God had let her faith slip to take on the values of the world around her.

I can’t give you the gift of faith. But I am going to assume that because you are here at a Christian weekend, you have already received that gift, at least in part. That childlike part of your heart senses that God is all good, pure light, worthy of your faith – listen to it! And when you are tempted to blame God, repeat to yourself: “God is light, there is no darkness in him at all.”

It’s not for us to tell God how to love us. Rather, if God is who we think God is, God is the only One with the right to say to us, “If you really love me, here’s what I want you do so.” A yoke is a collar for steering a beast doing useful work. We cannot put on the yoke of Christ without accepting that God’s choices are better than ours. It’s when we take on the yoke of Christ that God truly becomes our king. Only then can we ask in prayer, “Lord, what do you want me to do?”

There was a woman, whose name was Catherine, whose heart asked that question with childlike simplicity. She was the 24th child in her family – though in the 1300s, half of those children didn’t survive for more than a few months. Her parents said, “If you really loved us, you’d marry your widowed brother-in-law.” but Catherine refused: she wanted to dedicate her virginity to Christ. God honoured her choice, and took her deeper. At the age of 16, she became an associate member of the Dominican religious order, and shut herself up at home to live a life of prayer. But at the age of 21, God spoke to her. “If you really love me, you’ll help the poor and needy.” Whatever deep experience she had of God, it propelled her out of her religious cell and into the midst of the sick and poor people of the city of Siena. It even propelled her into the world of politics, where most famously she called upon the Pope, then in exile in France, to have the courage to return to Rome!

This year’s Celebrate theme is “Seek first his kingdom”. St Catherine did – but it took time for God to prepare her for her final mission, and she was deeply misunderstood by her family along the way.

If you are going to seek God’s Kingdom, you need to set your own crown aside. You no longer have the right to tell anyone, except yourself, what they “ought” to do in the name of real love. Christ’s yoke is light – the actual Greek word in the Bible means something like “well-fitting”, tailor made, a yoke for your own personal circumstances. But it is still a yoke.

How can we put on the yoke of Christ? The first step might be to forgive God for not doing things your way. God cannot sin in the sense of “wrong doing”. God cannot be responsible for darkness. But the word “sin” can also mean to “lack something”, and God can lack the vision that you would have for God.

The second step is to ask how we need to change our expectation of other people. Our parents, our spouse, our parish priest, can’t always love us in the way we hope for. So we choose to forgive them not only for their actual faults, but for failing to give us everything we hoped for from them.

The third step is to ask how we need to change our expectation of ourselves. “Lord,what would you like me to do? Thy will be done, Thy kingdom come.” This is the prayer of everyone who seeks God’s will. We may find that God is asking us to get out of our comfort zone and do something practical – or even to talk about our faith with other people, in the hope they come to share it too!

One final thought. 18 years ago, St John Paul II named St Catherine as one of six patron saints of Europe. I wonder what thoughts that word, Europe, stirs up in you right now?

  • If you really loved me, you’d want my Polish wife to be secure.
  • If you really loved me, you’d want my son to have a good chance of getting a job.
  • If you really loved me, you’d get on with running the country without involving me in all these elections and referenda!

Each one of us who is baptised shares in the work of Christ the King. It is our privilege and duty in our British democracy to exercise our share of this Kingship by voting, and voting prayerfully. There are times for debate and times to unite. As a nation, we are given a window to choose; then we must make the best of the choice made by the majority, and do so with good will.

What would you do if you really loved me? The very word “love” is so rich that the possible answers range from “I’d pray for your ministry” to “I’d give you a hug”. But I’m not the important one here. It’s about Jesus. What would you do if you really loved him? Seek first his Kingdom!

I am grateful for some inspiration from the Huffington Post, where Dr Margaret Paul speaks of what people who love would or wouldn’t do, with the consoling message that if they won’t, it’s about them not you!

 

 

Believe, Beloved (Morning Edition)

Homily at St Philip Evans for Easter Day 2017 – Second Reading from I Corinthians.

“Get rid of the yeast of evil and wickedness, having only the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

There’s been a lot of talk about sincerity and truth lately. Like yeast, fake news generates a lot of hot air. Indeed, only last week, Facebook published some guidelines to help us tell whether a news story is true or false. Three of them are helpful to us not only on the Internet, but for life in general.

  • Can we trust the person sharing the news?
  • Does the news include good evidence that it’s true, and few warning signs that it might be false?
  • Is anyone else independently reporting the same news?

We’ve just heard a claim that Jesus has risen from the dead – his tomb is empty, the stone has been rolled away and Mary Magdalen has had a conversation with him!

The news was written by a man called Matthew, a tax collector who became a follower of Jesus – and one of the friends who ran away when he was crucified.

Is anyone else reporting the same news? Yes, Peter saw the Risen Jesus too! We have just heard an account of him speaking to Cornelius – a Roman soldier – about how many people met Jesus after he rose from the dead!

We do find that the accounts given by all these people don’t match up exactly. But that shouldn’t worry us too much. When eyewitnesses agree 100% about what they claim they have seen, that’s often a sign they have colluded to make up a story. Real witness make mistakes about details!

There’s another way of testing the evidence, too. If Jesus is really alive, he should be touching people’s lives even today.

On Good Friday, I saw a post on Facebook about a woman called Natalie. 10 months ago she suffered a brain injury which had life-changing consequences: vertigo, intolerance of light and an inability to read. After coming forward for prayer she was completely healed! Two days later she was still suffering no symptoms at all!

Good news or fake news? Let’s apply the tests.

Do I trust the person sharing the news? I do, because I know him personally. His name is Andrew Fava and he belongs to a Catholic community, Cor et Lumen Christi, with a particular gift for praying for healing.

How good is the evidence? The post included a picture of Andrew alongside a beaming Natalie. I know that this community is careful not to make premature claims about healing – waiting two days to see if the effects are lasting is a good practice.

Is anyone else reporting the same news? Not specifically about Natalie, but about Jesus’ power to heal – certainly! At Lourdes, and when saints are canonized, the Catholic Church has a formal process to investigate miracles and establish that the claims are credible.

Still not convinced? You can check out the evidence yourself! Members of the Cor et Lumen Christi community will be running a healing mission here in Cardiff in September.

After listening to Peter’s testimony, the Roman soldier Cornelius chose to be baptised. He accepted Peter’s message that “all who believe in Jesus will have their sins forgiven through his name”. In a few moments, I will take the Easter water, blessed last night, and sprinkle all of us with it. Before you receive the water, I will ask you to renew your baptismal promises. But as promises go, these ones sound strange. I will ask, three times, “Do you believe?” and you will answer “I do!” What kind of promise is this?

To believe simply means “to put your trust in”. What I am asking about is not the ideas in your head, but the choices in your life. Do you trust in God the Father, who created heaven and earth? Do you trust in Jesus, who rose from the dead and has opened for you the path to heaven? Do you trust in the Holy Spirit, to live in you and produce a fountain of living water? Do you trust in the Catholic Church, to teach the truth about God and about right living?

When you leave Mass today, you will be handed three invitations. One is for a free showing of a movie this Friday. Another is to come to the Celebrate conference in a fortnight’s time. The third is to a special confession service in Splott next Sunday – Divine Mercy Sunday. Nearly one hundred years ago, the Risen Jesus appeared many times to a Polish nun, Sr Fautina Kowalska, and asked that the Sunday after Easter be kept as a special celebration of his mercy. Jesus promised special blessings to anyone who goes to confession on that day and who venerates the Divine Mercy Image. What is that image? It is Jesus with rays representing baptism and Holy Communion flowing from his breast, and an inscription: “Jesus, I trust in you!”

Often, good news is only a beginning. It contains great hope, but the promise takes time to come about.

So they have discovered a wonder-drug with potential to beat some killer disease? Fantastic! But it will be years before the safety tests are complete and we can benefit from it.

So the reviewer is raving about the best film ever – but that’s no good to me if I can’t get to the cinema to watch it.

This morning we celebrate that Jesus really rose from the dead, and heaven is for real – though we do not yet live in the Promised Land. Mary Magdalen was given a glimpse but had to tell the disciples that they would later “see Jesus in Galilee”.

Jesus said he was the gate for the sheep through which we must enter, the true vine to which we must stay connected, the bread of life we must eat to enter heaven.

How can we tell if this is true news? If it is true that Jesus has overcome death and is alive right now, he can make good on his promise! He can touch your life, brighten your darkness, quicken your heart and stir your soul!

The word “believe” shares its origins with the word “beloved”. Because we’re loved by another person, we can place our trust in that person to be there for us – we can believe in our beloved. We can place our faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be there for us, because on Easter Sunday morning, we learned that the Father raised Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. We know that he is truly in Heaven sitting at the right of the Father. We only know that he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven because of the testimony of those first Christians, who paid with their lives for insisting that the news was true.

Christ is Risen.

Heaven is open for business.

Jesus can even heal people today!

That’s not fake news – it’s good news! Alleluia!