The Parable of the Pollen

Homily at St Philip Evans on the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like this.

A garden was full of beautiful fruit trees. These trees bore pollen that had some amazing powers!

Wherever the pollen landed, it brought forth fruit. Even if the pollen landed on the a tree’s own sapling, or on a bush from a totally different species, it still brought forth luscious, tasty, fruit!

But the gardener had a problem. The oldest trees were dying. And the younger trees weren’t producing much fruit.

Some trees said: We don’t want to go to the effort of producing pollen. We can put out shoots and grow saplings without them. And it was true. The trees were good at producing saplings… but those saplings tended to put out runners, grew outside the garden, and the saplings bore no fruit.

Other trees said: We’re afraid to produce pollen. Once we let go of our pollen, our flowers die. What would people think of us if we didn’t look beautiful, respectable? We stand tall, showing off our lovely flowers, and we don’t want to annoy people by shedding dust all over them!

The gardener grieved. The trees had forgotten that they were fruit trees. The very reason they were in the garden was to bear fruit that would bring life to the world around. If there was no fruit, one day the garden would die!

Indeed, some trees in the garden shared his grief. They WANTED to bear fruit, but no-one was sharing pollen with them, and they didn’t feel confident to share their own because they weren’t sure how to do it… no-one was showing them good examples!

Fortunately there were some new trees in the garden, they were exotic varieties that had been transplanted from gardens that were bearing fruit. For now, they were healthy. But the gardener was worried… when they put out saplings, those saplings might say: ‘Why should we shed our pollen when the other trees in this garden don’t? They will look more beautiful than us when our flowers die!’

The gardener loved flowers very much. He was proud of his beautiful garden, and he loved standing back and looking at all the beautiful colours. But there are many kinds of beauty. Is a luscious apple or a ripe mango less beautiful than a tree in blossom? It is a different kind of beauty… but you can’t eat blossom.

The garden was not meant to be a flower garden. It was an orchard, destined to bear fruit. If it stopped bearing fruit, the town around it would starve!

The gardener realised it was time for desperate measures. He would have to teach the trees to shed pollen again. So he went to work creating bags of artificial pollen, and he went round the whole garden, and rubbed a little on each tree. “Now then!” he declared, “It is time for us to learn how to shed our pollen again. Look out for any plant you can sprinkle a little on to. It might be one of your own saplings. It might be a tree that’s been growing near you for a long time. But any bush that’s within reach, even if it looks really unpromising, if you can reach it, sprinkle a little pollen and see what happens.”

Friends, you are the trees in the garden of this parish. We are not good, in this country, at speaking openly about why church matters to us, and how Jesus invites everyone in Cardiff to come and be his follower, eating at his table. The fruit that we are meant to bear is the fruit of new and committed members of our church, living up to the six expectations I’ve spoken about so often.

On your benches are invitation cards. These are your pollen. I can’t think of any approach less threatening than saying to a family member or friend, “I’d like to show you what I do on a Sunday morning. We’re having a special Guest Day on July 1st. I’d be honoured if you’d be my guest.”

Imagine if we all invited one other person, and 100 guests actually came on July 1st?

Imagine if 10 of those guests liked what they saw and became part of the life of our church?

Imagine if we did the same thing every year?

We are brilliant at being flowers for Christ. He sees us at Mass every weekend and he smiles. He sees the effort we make to love others, and again he smiles. But remember, Jesus is looking for fruit, and when a fig tree didn’t offer him any, He cursed it!

Unbound

IMG_3919[1]Sermon at St Austin, Wakefield, as part of a Sion Community Parish Mission.

This morning I suffered a wardrobe malfunction. I looked down and saw that my belt had come loose. My first thought was it must have split at one of the holes – but no. When I looked more closely I saw that the cut end had come loose from its fixing.

Sometimes God speaks to us through the ordinary things in life. This felt like one of those moments.

When we’re in a bind, how do we get out? How can we be released?

We could just undo the belt. That would represent letting our standards slip.

We could cut the belt. In the New Testament, a belt represents truth. Breaking the belt would be to tell a deliberate lie. How often have we used a lie to avoid confronting a difficult situation?

But here, something different has happened. I have not let my standards slip. I have not told a lie. And yet, in a most unexpected way, I have been released.

On Monday night I spoke about Clare, who twice knew she was carrying a handicapped child, but refused abortion or even an induced birth. Each time, through God’s providence, she naturally went into labour just before the medics would have imposed a delivery on her.

In one of my parishes, I had a lady who had once faced a terrible dilemma. She had an ectopic pregnancy, with her unborn child growing where it could not survive and would risk her own health too. As a devout Catholic, she did not want a termination. The doctors saw no other alternative. The procedure was scheduled for a Monday… but by God’s grace, on the Sunday, she suffered a miscarriage. God allowed an impossible situation to be resolved with no-one incurring any guilt.

Sometimes the thing that binds us is our unwillingness give or receive forgiveness. The Prodigal Son was bound by his belief that he would not be welcome at his Father’s house… so he stuck it out with the pigs, until life became unbearable. But when he accepted the truth that he had sinned against his Father, he was able to go home and experience his Father’s outrageous generosity.

Last week, an elderly lady I know in Cardiff told me a remarkable story. When she was a little girl, her father sometimes beat her with a wooden ruler. One day the ruler splintered and left her with a scar on her hand, which she’s carried for most of her 80 years. In May, on a pilgrimage, she found the strength, for the first time in her life, to pray a deep prayer of forgiveness for her father. Emotionally, she felt better immediately. But even more – when she woke up the following morning, the scar on her hand was gone!

Jesus taught us the importance of forgiving others. In the Lord’s Prayer, we say, in effect, “Father, only forgive us as far as we forgive others.” God our Father wants to offer us total forgiveness, but to receive that we have to extend the same grace to those who sin against us. Forgiveness doesn’t mean saying wrong things are OK. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting the wound or making ourselves needlessly vulnerable. But forgiveness does mean treating our enemies with courtesy, decency and respect. We don’t need to punish them. God will deal with any punishments when the time comes, for those souls who choose never to repent.

Confession is where we say to God: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your child.”

Confession is where God says to us: “Relax, my child. It was never about what you deserved. It was about the gift you were unwilling to accept, until now.”

How, then, should we prepare to make a good confession this evening? We start with our guilt.

As Catholics, we are famous for our sense of guilt.

Sometimes we suffer from false guilt, from our failure to achieve the impossible. We may have missed Mass due to a bout of ‘flu, or had a ‘bad thought’ to which we gave no wilful encouragement whatsoever. But if we didn’t have the power to do otherwise, such guilt is not a sign of wilful sin. The only thing binding us in such cases is a misplaced sense of duty. Trust your confessor if he says that you have not sinned, in response to what you confess.

Sometimes we suffer from residual guilt. Perhaps we have formed our own opinion, which is not the Church’s opinion, about abortion, or contraception, or weapons of mass destruction, or involvement in unfair trade, or any other case where we might pretend to ourselves that “the ends justify the means”. But after we have acted, or voted, in accord with our private views, perhaps our second thoughts chip in… our conscience says, “What if, when I meet Our Lord, it turns out that the Catholic Church was right after all?” Hold on to that thought!

Sometimes we suffer from true guilt. We have made a choice which is not a good and godly choice. Perhaps that was a once-in-a-lifetime major event which we’ve been trying to forget about ever since. Perhaps it was the beginning of a chain of addiction, to alcohol, pornography, or some other pleasure. Or perhaps it was some petty act of jealousy or spite towards another person. Whatever it was, it quite rightly causes us to feel guilty.

The great thing about being Catholic is that we have a way of dealing with guilt. Run to the confessional, plead guilty, let the priest pass sentence. The sentence is always the same – your sins, together with all the other sins of the world, deserve death. But by freely offering himself to die on the Cross, Jesus served that sentence for us. What we are called to, instead, is true repentance.

Now, it’s true that to make a good confession, we also require a “firm purpose of amendment”. If we have recognised that our actions are sinful, we must do what is within our power to avoid sin in future. If our sin is one of addiction, “what is within our power” may be to start getting help, by attending a 12-step programme like Alcoholics Anonymous. If our sin is one of being drawn into pornography, “what is within our power” may be to install blocking software on our computer, or confiding in a friend to be an “accountability partner”. God delights in our efforts to overcome sin. God will give us extra help to resist temptation, if we ask for this in prayer. But God’s love for us does not depend on our efforts to resist evil. God’s love is always there.

“Behold!” says Jesus. “I stand at the door and knock!”

Whose knock do you hear?

Is it an Inspector, coming to catch you out for letting your standards slip?

Is it a Judge, banging his gavel to pass sentence?

Or is it your Eldest Brother – not the Elder Brother who has sour grapes because your Father is merciful, but your Eldest Brother, Jesus himself, who says: “I’ve already paid your fine. Come with me – you’re free to go!”

True repentance means running to the God who loves us, no matter what sin we have committed.

True repentance means having the confidence of the prodigal son, to return to the Father’s House – and trusting that a joyful welcome awaits us.

True repentance means trusting that nothing we can do, no sin we might commit, can cause God to love us any less than than God does already – any more than a mother can stop loving her wayward child.

True repentance means rushing to the Sacrament of Mercy and saying, “Father, I messed up again.” In return, God says, “I love you! And I forgive you again!”

True repentence is taking to confession even that one small sin that you would really rather not disclose. It’s quite trivial really, but you know it’s there, and you know tonight is the night God wants to deal with it. You have the choice to deny it’s there (that’s cutting the belt) or quietly choosing to live with it (that’s undoing the belt). Will you answer Jesus’ knock, when he is asking to unbind you in an unexpected way?

We do not – we cannot – earn God’s forgiveness.

God loves us. God will never reject us, whatever our actions might deserve.

This is the God who commanded Peter to forgive seventy times seven times, who sent his only Son to die so our sins could be forgiven.

This is the loving Father who declares: “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning.”

Are you are suffering from guilt?

Rush to the confessional.  Plead guilty.

“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your child.”

But go with Christ when he knocks, and if you stay close to Him, you will hear these words:

“You are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased.”

It’s time to open the door. Come.

Faith is when you trust your Father

Sermon at St Austin, Wakefield, as part of a Sion Community Parish Mission.

“Our God is a great big God and He holds us in His hands!”

If you came to our family service yesterday, you’ll remember the closing song. The same idea was in our opening hymn tonight:

Fatherlike he tends and spares us;
well our feeble frame he knows.
In his hand he gently bears us,
rescues us from all our foes.

I wonder what the word “God” means to you? For some people, “God” refers to a lofty philosophical idea – the ground of all being, the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. There’s truth in all these ideas, but such a God can seem remote, abstract, distant.

For others, the very idea of God is mysterious. One day a Mum asked her daughter what she was drawing.

“It’s a picture of God, Mummy!”

“But, darling, no one knows what God looks like!”

“They will when I’ve finished!”

For Jesus, it was very simple. God was his Father. Abba. Daddy. When Jesus prayed, it was to his “Abba” – a word Arab children use addressing their fathers even today. When the disciples asked to be taught how to pray, Jesus taught them to say “Our Father”. Anyone who follows me, said Jesus, would be His brother or sister – we share one Father in heaven.

St Paul understood this as well. We hear this in his letter to the Christians in Ephesus. He’s praying that they’ll come to understand what it means to have God as Our Father. Something of his letter gets lost in translation – the Greek word Paul uses for ‘family’ or ‘clan’ here is patria. Since the word for Father is pater, to be part of God’s family is to be part of his patriarchy, belonging to his patrimony, under his paternity.

What Paul wants for the Ephesians, he wants for us too. Do we know that God is our loving Father? Do we feel secure as members of God’s family? We can be slow to appreciate the gift that we’re offered. The Old Testament prophet, Hosea, expressed God’s frustration with his beloved people: “I took them in my arms; yet they have not understood that I was the one looking after them. I led them with reins of kindness, with leading-strings of love.”

Some of us have had a really good experience of a Dad on earth who loved and cherished us like that. It’s not hard to imagine a heavenly Father who is the same, only better.

Others of us haven’t had such a good experience. Perhaps our Dad wasn’t there when we needed him – or he drank too much – or was violent towards us our our mother. But even then, we might have a positive sense of God as our Heavenly Father.

There again, some of us really struggle with the idea that God loves us, cares for us, or is looking out for us. If that’s you, I have a story to share with you. It’s not my story – it’s belongs to two remarkable young people called Henry and Clare.

This young couple met on a pilgrimage in 2002; each immediately intuited that the other was ‘the One’. Five months later, they shared their first kiss. Four years later they quarrelled badly and realised they could not live together peacefully; so Claire went away for a few day’s retreat.

On her return home, a message from Henry demanded the return of the exercise weights he had left in her house; what he didn’t expect was that she’d return them in person. They talked; and slowly, they began to rebuild their relationship. The following spring they broke up again, and turned to their spiritual director, an Italian priest.

Together, they began to understand that choosing marriage means taking responsibility for one’s own weaknesses and shortcomings. A relationship which is not lived with this depth is not the vocation of marriage – but merely accompanying another person until death. The vocation of marriage must realise that only God, not your beloved spouse, will be the ultimate source of your happiness and fulfilment. Quickly, Henry and Claire understood what they needed to do, became engaged, and were married the same autumn.

The path God had chosen for them was indeed a hard one. In 2009 – indeed, nine years ago this month – Claire gave birth to their first child, a child with a terrible deformity of the skull. They had known this day was coming, and a scan had warned them that the child would not live long after birth; their devout faith meant there was no question of choosing abortion. Yet at the funeral of Mary Grace Joy (Maria Grazia Lutetia), her parents were found not in the front pew for family mourners, but seated among the choir, leading songs of praise that their firstborn had already joined the saints in heaven.

Further joys and sorrows followed. Clare quickly conceived again… but the following June, they celebrated the funeral of their second child, David John (Davide Giovanni), born with a totally unrelated birth defect. This time, the funeral found Claire leading bidding prayers for all mothers and future mothers.

Six years ago this week, Claire herself lay on her deathbed. She had been diagnosed with cancer at the same time as becoming pregnant with a healthy child. She postponed treatment for cancer so her third child, Francesco, could be born safely; but the cancer was not treatable, and Clare passed into God’s hands on June 13th, after 28 years of life and four of marriage.

Clare and Henry’s story sounds like a tragedy, but everyone who knew Clare spoke of her great joy. There was no question of doubting God’s love and goodness. When her children died soon after birth, they were assuredly becoming saints in heaven. When God allowed her to be diagnosed with an agressive cancer, they filled an aeroplane with family and friends to make one last pilgrimage to be with them in a holy place.

Last year, five years after Clare’s death, Henry was interviewed and shared these words:

Faith, like life, is a journey, and if you want to die happy like Clare, you need to walk that path. During this voyage, God sends you things you must embrace, because He knows He can ask them of you; He wants what is good for you, and doesn’t give you a cross to crush you, but rather, to make you open to something else, to something you have not even imagined. We had no doubt that was the case here. We were in a relationship with God, and therefore we knew that what He was asking of us was good for us, because it had been that way so many other times. All our difficulties helped us have a new encounter with Him.

Faith and courage are not the same. The opposite of fear isn’t bravery, but faith. When you have faith, your strength comes from Someone else; when you are brave, you are the one who makes the effort alone. She had Someone else’s strength.

God’s leading strings of love often lead us where we do not want to go. King David wrote in his psalm of having to walk in the “valley of the shadow of death”. The Risen Jesus forgave St Peter for his denials, but said he would one day be led captive. The history of the Catholic Church is filled with people who have experienced miraculous cures and divine protection, but also those, like the English Martyrs, who paid with their lives for their faithfulness to God and His Church.

Every one of us here tonight will have experienced joys and sorrows in our life. Most of us will have buried our parents, or know that sooner or later that duty will come to us. Some of us will have known disability or long-term illness. But we will also have known the joy of a first kiss, a lasting relationship, a solid friendship, a breathtaking view, or a transcedent piece of music capable of transporting us to another place.

Have we thanked God for the joys which have come our way?

Have we rushed to blame God for the sorrows which we could not avoid?

When we were young,  it seemed that our parents could wish away the ills of the world by kissing our grazed knees and holding us close. As adults we know that life holds its challenges. As members of God’s family we are invited to be Christians, literally other-Christs. St Paul calls us co-heirs with Christ, sharing his suffering so as to share in his glory. 

It would be nice to believe in a world where God could prevent all wars, all diseases and all tragedies. Indeed God has designed such a world – it is called the world to come, and it is waiting for us. But here and now, God has no greater dignity for us than to be like His Firstborn Son. In his letter to the Romans, Paul declares with great confidence that “God turns all things to good for those who love Christ Jesus”. When the Cross comes our way, we have the choice of embracing it or rejecting it. But if we reject the Cross, we reject the Ressurrection.

In order to know God’s love, some of us might first need to forgive God. Of course, God cannot do anything evil – but God can fail to meet our expectations. ‘Forgiveness’ simply means making a decision not to penalise someone who hasn’t met our expectations. God might have not fixed your problems the way you hoped he would.

In the 11 years I’ve been a priest, I’ve read much of the Bible time and time again. But I am yet to find a passage where God promises to protect his friends from the sorrows of life on earth. Rather, Jesus prayed that his followers would be “in the world and not of the world”. If we know our identity with God as our Father, we know that we belong to an eternal family and the best is yet to come.

Clare and Henry – or to give them their proper Italian names, Enrico Petrillo and Chiara Corbella – knew the agony and ecstasy of having God as a Father who was preparing them for heaven. Chiara had the joy of knowing her children were safely in Heaven and we have little reason to doubt that she too, as one who laid down her life for the sake of her child, will be there, and may soon be recognised by the Church as a saint. Only God can grant us the gift of the joy which makes us radiant in the face of such trials. This is a Divine Gift. But we know that God loves to bestow gifts on his children, and tonight we can ask him to touch our hearts with a deeper knowledge of his love and of his Fatherhood. Let’s do that now.

A Meditation on Marriage

Homily at St Philip Evans on the 9th Wednesday of Year 2, with couples invited for a meal with local representatives of Marriage Encounter.

“To whom shall she be married when the dead are raised on the last day?”

A deep question, and to answer it we must understand what marriage is in God’s eyes.

The very word, ‘marriage’, has changed its meaning greatly in both civil society and among religious believers. In Great Britain today, a marriage is a legal partnership between two adults, which gives each rights over the other’s property and finances, until such time as one partner dies or a court cancels the arrangement by a decree of divorce. Whatever fine words are spoken on marriage day declaring only “death do us part”, they are not honoured by the State in practice.

In Jewish practice, for centuries before and during the time of Christ, divorce was easily available, and in many places polygamy was practiced too – indeed, many of the great heroes of the Hebrew Bible had more than one wife. So a man could have many wives, in series or at the same time, and this was not regarded as a problem – even on the day when the dead would be raised. But the Jewish law also required a man to marry his dead brother’s widow so she could be protected in society, and if she was childless, to give her children to continue his brother’s name. The Jews could imagine a man being blessed with a harem of wives on the Last Day, but not a woman with multiple husbands!

Today our culture has a different romantic ideal – finding The One. Is there one perfect partner out there, pre-selected by the Almighty as your soul-mate? Or should we simply try enough different partners until we find one better than all the previous models? In fact the truth lies somewhere in between: marriage is a vocation – it is a calling from God. And it requires work, because however suitable the partner you pick, you must still work at perfecting the relationship.

Take the story of Henry and Claire (Enrico Petrillo and Chiara Corbella). They met on a pilgrimage in 2002; each immediately intuited that the other was ‘the One’. Five months later, they shared their first kiss. Four years later they quarrelled badly and realised they could not live together peacefully; so Claire went away for a few day’s retreat. On her return home, a message from Henry demanded the return of the exercise weights he had left in her house; what he did not expect was that she would return them in person. They talked; and slowly, they began to rebuild their relationship. The following spring they broke up again, and turned to their spiritual director, an Italian priest.

Together, they began to understand that choosing marriage means giving of oneself first without asking anything of the other, the radical gift of oneself. In any close relationship, each partner will experience the ugliness of their own faults – instead of blaming their beloved for exposing their weakness, each partner must take responsibility. A relationship which is not lived with this depth is not the vocation of marriage – but merely accompanying another person until death. This vocation must realise that only God, not your beloved spouse, will be the ultimate source of your happiness and fulfilment.

Quickly, Henry and Claire understood what they needed to do, became engaged, and were married the same autumn. The path God had chosen for them was indeed a hard one. In 2009 – indeed, nine years ago to the week – Claire gave birth to their first child, a child with a terrible deformity of the skull. They had known this day was coming, and that the child would not live long after birth; their devout faith admitted no possibility of an abortion. Yet at the funeral of Mary Grace Joy (Maria Grazia Lutetia), her parents were found not in the front pew for family mourners, but seated among the choir, leading songs of praise that their firstborn had already joined the saints in heaven. The following June, they celebrated the funeral of their second child, David John (Davide Giovanni), born with a totally unrelated birth defect, with Claire leading bidding prayers for all mothers and future mothers. Six years ago this week, Claire herself lay on her deathbed. She had postponed treatment for cancer so her third child, Francesco, could be born safely; she passed into God’s hands on June 13th, after 28 years of life and four of marriage.

We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. We know that both infants, baptised in the short hours between birth and death, will be numbered among the saints on the Day of Ressurrection. We have little reason to doubt that Claire too, as one who laid down her life for the sake of others in purple martyrdom, will be there, and may soon be recognised by the Church as a saint.

Whose wife she will be on the Day of Ressurrection? She will be wife to Jesus Christ, who called and sustained her throughout her life on earth. The same Lord Jesus will be spouse to Mary Grace Joy and to David John, who will be raised fully mature on that day. The same Lord Jesus will, we hope and pray, be spouse to Henry, whose life on earth continues at this time.

On the Day of Resurrection, the love we enjoyed with any spouse will be brought to perfection; no ugliness will be left. But to that will be added a perfect love for Jesus Christ and all the brothers and sisters caught up with us. An eternity of relationships awaits us – of perfect love without jealousy! Don’t settle for a mundane vision of heaven as living with your spouse purified and renewed. God has so much more in store!

And how does God wish to prepare our souls for this eternity of love without jealousy? For many of us, our apprenticeship is called Holy Matrimony.

The first Christians understood from Christ that they were called to a radically deeper form of marriage. As followers of Christ, they were not free to marry multiple partners; they were not free to separate and marry another while their Christian spouse still lived. “God’s plan from the beginning”, Jesus quoted from Genesis, “was that a man should leave his father’s house and cleave to his wife, and the two become one flesh.” Was this because God was calling them to a pairing that would last for eternity? Not in the sense that the exclusive marriage would continue for ever in heaven. The vocation of marriage is for this earthly life, when each faithful couple is called to be an icon of Christ’s faithfulness to the church. The greater burden, indeed, falls on the Christian husband who is called to be an icon of the Sinless One; the wife is the icon of the Church, at once justified and yet composed of sinners!

The true vocation of marriage is to find one’s fulfilment in Christ, while living out our earthly call to be faithful to one person of the opposite sex, despite all their imperfections and annoying habits, and weathering all the storms which life sends in their direction. So to those of you who are married, and to those of you who support married couples in your families and in our community, I echo these words of St Paul: bear your share of hardship for the Gospel
with the strength that comes from God, who saved us and called us to a holy life, according to his own design
and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus before time began. In this way you can join Clare and Henry on the path to heaven.

The Big Tent

Homily at St Philip Evans Church for the First Communion Masses on the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, 2018

Have you ever been to a circus? It’s very exciting – a large tent is suddenly put up in the middle of town, and everyone goes to enjoy the entertainment!

Last year, Pope Francis invited me to a circus in Rome – but I’ll tell you more about that in a minute. First there’s another big tent I’d like to tell you about.

Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, Moses was the leader of the Jewish people. God was guiding them through the desert so they had to live in tents as they moved from one place to another. They made one very big special tent which they called the tabernacle. This was where they went to say their prayers. In fact it was more than a place for prayer; they believed it was the place where God lived. They knew that, because God gave them the amazing sign of a pillar of cloud standing there in the daytime, and a pillar of fire every night. You might know a famous hymn which talks about being led by a “fiery, cloudy pillar” – that was where Moses went to hear the voice of God. Then he would come out to give the people God’s instructions.

In the first reading we heard today, God offers the people a deal! “I will look after you”, he said; and the people said “Yes, we’ll do everything you ask us to do”! Now then parents, would you believe that? Would you believe it if anyone in your family said “Yes Mam, yes Dad, I will always do as I’m told”?

Well, we’re not very good at doing what we’re told and the children of Israel weren’t very good either… but in that moment when they said yes, Moses said: “To show this is a really important bargain you’re making with God, I’m going to do something rather gruesome! I’m going to throw blood all over you!” He took a bowl of blood and threw it over the people! You wouldn’t forget a day like that, would you? Moses also said, every year, you have to have a big festival and remember that God rescued you by his power – this was called the feast of Passover. A lamb would be sacrificed and everyone in the family would have to eat part of the lamb.

This helps us make sense of what Jesus did when he celebrated the Last Supper. His friends were used to keeping the festival each year eating lamb and flatbread, but Jesus said “this is my body – eat me!” I am the new lamb you have to eat. Then he said something really gruesome: “I want you to drink my blood!” Jewish people never drank blood. It was forbidden! They had to drain all the blood out of meat before they were allowed to eat it! But Jesus meant the cup of wine in front of him. He meant: “This is going to become my blood, you can drink this and then you’ll have God’s life in you.” The very next day Jesus was killed on the cross and His actual blood did flow out.

We know the good news: Jesus rose from the dead and his friends want to tell the whole world about it. But his friends went scratching their heads and saying “What just happened? Why did Jesus want us to drink his blood?” One of his friends had a long time to think about it, and wrote what we call the “letter to the Hebrews”.  It went like this: “Remember the sacrifices Moses gave us in the old days? We had to sacrifice animals to show that we were sorry to God. Moses had a tent where God met him, a tent that just reminded us of heaven. But now Jesus has gone to God’s real tent, that’s heaven itself! He took the best possible sacrifice with him – not an animal’s blood but his own blood, when he gave himself for us. Now we can drink his blood when we come to Holy Mass, so that God’s everlasting life will be in us!”

The other word for “tent” is “tabernacle” and we have our own tent in this church: the tabernacle where the Body of Jesus lives. We don’t see a great pillar of fire coming down from heaven but we do have this lamp showing that God is living here.

Christians gathering in Rome with Pope Francis for Pentecost 2017

Now I promised earlier to tell you how Pope Francis invited me to the circus. It was called the Circus Maximus – which is a stadium in Rome. In Latin, a “circus” was a round space where people went for entertainment – not clowns and trapeze artists but chariot races and gladiators; and that’s where they took Christians to be killed in those early days when the Romans didn’t like Christians. Last summer, Pope Francis invited lots of Catholics and other Christian leaders to meet him there, to honour the martyrs who died in that place.

It reminded me that when our patron Saint, Philip Evans, was killed, that would have been a bit like a circus. A big open field on the edges of Cardiff, lots of people came to see two of those horrible Catholic priests being executed; they would have made a big show out of it.

So for you children making First Communion today, I have a question for you to think about. Would you rather visit the circus or join the circus? Today’s First Holy Communion Mass is a bit like visiting the circus. It’s a big event that creates a lot of excitement. It doesn’t come to town very often; we turn up, have a good time with our families, and go home. But Jesus isn’t just inviting you to enjoy the show. He wants you to become a member of his circus! Going to circus is fun. Joining the circus is glamorous but hard work. What you don’t see in the ring is the hours every trapeze artist spends practising their act, the time the clowns take thinking of funny gags, the time it takes to train the performing animals. But if nobody did that, there would be no circus!

Children, church won’t always give you the special attention you’ve had this year. Sometimes Mass might feel boring. But Communion is so special that St Philip Evans risked being killed so families in Cardiff could go to Mass every Sunday, and the Christians who died in Circus Maximus might have been caught going to Mass too.

Today, Jesus is inviting you to join his circle of friends who meet every week, to be fed by his body and blood. When you receive your First Communion, each of you will become a little tabernacle, with Jesus remaining present in you for a few minutes. So it’s time to join me on the altar and light your own pillar of fire, your baptism candle. Come!

Fruitful Missionary Discipleship

Teaching given at the Sion Community, 26 & 27 May 2018

Parish Structures

To inspire a priest or member of a parish leadership team who is open to Alpha and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, offer a Summary of Divine Renovation.

To inspire a priest or member of a parish leadership team who is skeptical about Alpha or the gifts of the Holy Spirit, offer a Summary of Rebuilt.

Read more relevant links about parishes at The Five Pillars of Thriving Parishes and Building Missionary Parishes.

Evangelising Individuals

To inspire a layperson who’s not on a parish leadership team, or a priest who is particularly concerned with their one-to-one work evangelising parishioners, offer a Summary of Forming Intentional Disciples.

Read more, with useful links, at Help! I’m a Catholic who wants to evangelise! and Making Disciples.

Other Resources

The slides used at Sion are available as the original PowerPoint and as a PDF.

Some additional books you might read!

Video clips used are embedded below, apart from the “Blessed” First Communion resource. The “Evidence” clip is one of many brilliant films from Outside da Box; I also strongly recommend “Initiation“.

The Five Pillars of Thriving Parishes

Since the publication of Rebuilt in 2012, there’s been an explosion of writing about what makes Catholic parishes prosper. Rebuilt itself charted the impressive growth of an American parish from 1500 to 4000 worshippers, and was closely followed by Divine Renovation (2014), with its focus not on the number of worshippers but on raising the level of engagement among 2000 Canadian worshippers from the typical 7-10% to well in excess of 40%. Divine Renovation in turn alerted readers to the Clifton StrengthsFinder tool with its embedded testimony of raised engagement, reduced hostility, and sudden prosperity for a nondescript New York parish.

Naturally the publishers of these “glory stories” realised that readers would want to learn more, so Divine Renovation has now been followed by its own Reading Guide, an application manual for parishes, and most recently an anecdotal account of how the new pastor there, Revd Simon Lobo, learned the art of pastoring through a rapid apprenticeship. Meanwhile Rebuilt, which was perhaps slightly more detailed in its original text and has more extensive online book-derived resources, has generated numerous extracts and specific applications so the spin-offs include advice on rebuilding youth ministry, confirmation, preaching, 10 steps for getting started and 75 tips for applying the Rebuilt approach generally. Both sources have extensive websites (RB, DR) and now issue regular podcasts: (RB, DR)! Rebuilt hasn’t established much of a presence in the UK, but through its strong ties with Alpha, Divine Renovation now has a UK promoter (Hannah Vaughan-Spruce) and regular UK conferences.

There are many other thriving Catholic parishes. In 2016, Bill Simon published Great Catholic Parishes, based on studies of 244 vibrant parishes, and discovered four common factors at work. First, successful parishes don’t leave it all to the pastor – they have leadership teams. The mix between employees and volunteers, full-time and part-time varies hugely, but in some way, leadership is distributed. Secondly, parishioners are intentional about coming together to pray and to share the work of the parish. Thirdly, Sunday Mass is a high point yet clearly integrated into the lives of those who attend, with welcomers and architecture to draw them in, and mental, electronic and printed take-aways to embed that Sunday’s message in the week to come. Finally, thriving parishes look outwards and are conscious of their role to support fellow Christians in poorer areas. These findings are promoted by the Parish Catalyst organization, which also produces study guides to help apply this material.

In 2013, two businessmen, Patrick Lencioni and John Martin, recognised the need to apply leadership expertese in service of Catholic parishes. They set up the Amazing Parish movement. The on-line resources focus on helping parish priests to recognise the need to work as part of a team, recruit the right members, and start working together effectively.

Finally, an honourable mention must go to the Dynamic Catholic movement (also launching in the UK). Matthew Kelly has written about the importance of raising levels of engagement. Some critics have accused his approach as shallow, since he speaks of the call to holiness as “becoming the best version of yourself”. This kind of language can be a useful, and motivating, bridge to the unengaged, but also needs careful unpacking in the light of a Catholic understanding of what a truly good life looks like.

Listening, Learning Leaders

All successful parishes have a pastor (parish priest) who works as part of a team. In a team he can be challenged, offered alternative perspectives, and be held accountable. Every pastor has blind spots. The other team members might be fellow clergy, paid staff, volunteers or some mixture of all of these. The leadership team is not the same body as the Parish Advisory Council or the Parish Finance Committee; it will be a smaller group which meets more regularly and where the members share a common sense of the mission (what are we here for?) and vision (how are we going to achieve it?) of the parish.

Evident Expectations (Engagement & Evangelisation)

Any parish serious about raising its levels of engagement will make clear what it expects of its members. Not all parish activities foster engagement or evangelisation – engaging is more than “coming to activities”. To engage, an activity has to help participants commit emotionally to the mission or vision of the parish. To evangelise, an activity has to explicitly invite a deeper relationship with Christ. The next two pillars (fostering volunteers and sharing groups) are integral to deepening engagement. If you have a congregation with too few engaged members to take on any special projects, your only viable starting point is raising the engagement level in the weekend congregation.

Vibrant Volunteers

Successful parishes make good use of their available staff and volunteers. The right people are affirmed and promoted; the wrong people are moved out of ministry positions where they are not effective. There will be some kind of pipeline to enable people’s gifts to be recognised, leading to a trial season in some suitable role, and an annual review of whether to continue in that ministry.

Intentional Interactions

Successful parishes expect their members to attend some kind of regular small-to-medium sized group. It is here, not in the large Sunday congregation, that members will build strong relationships and be challenged to deeper conversion. Some parishes may do this by setting clear expectations for existing parish groups (e.g. UCM, Legion of Mary) rather than erecting new ones.

Superb Sundays

Sundays (and Saturday evenings) are your shop window. Everyone who comes should have a superb experience. This requires radiant hospitality which begins at the parking lot, first rate hymns and musical support, and a clear homily which has been prepared and polished to give a clear pithy message, including elements of humour and personal vulnerability, and possibly supported by visual aids and/or a clear take-home message in the bulletin, website, and social media feed.

Where should I begin?

If you are a parish priest with no leadership team supporting you, you would be wise to build a team before attempting to discern or do anything else. The Amazing Parish resources focus most strongly on this.

Once you have a team, if you don’t already have a large pool of engaged parishioners, you will need to focus on raising engagement before you have people ready to work with you on anything else. If you have enough money to invest in doing this, you might find the Gallup approach (on-line questionnaires and personal coaching) or the Called & Gifted approach (on-site discernment workshops) gives your parishioners a strong sense of being active members of the congregation with gifts to offer. Alternatively, and especially if you are comfortable with personal prayer ministry being offered to your parishioners, you can use Alpha or Discovering Christ to prepare parishioners for a “Holy Spirit Day” (or weekend). Rebuilt has its own Small Groups model.

If you do have a pool of people who share your sense of vision and mission, you have more options. You might still choose to focus on expanding enagement in your weekend congregation, in which case study Divine Renovation more deeply, and make use of the ME25 tool.

On the other hand, if you want to focus your resources on evangelisation, you can use the sequels to Discovering Christ or the Relit program to form your parishioners, and consider becoming a host site for the New Evangelisation Summit (which will provide world-class motivational speakers and some basic training content). You then have numerous options.

One factor that might help you discern which way to go, is the question of how comfortable the pastor and people are with an explicit reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit. Those ready to risk this will find great fruit from Alpha or Discovering Christ, and will intuitively embrace the Divine Renovation approach and be open to all that Called & Gifted can offer.

Pastors and leadership teams who are not comfortable with this approach might find a safer, more palatable, route through the Clifton StrengthsFinder, and a study of Rebuilt, which is not noticably associated with Alpha or prayer ministry.

Finally, it should be noted that surrounding any major parish initiative with prayer is so fundamental that this is treated as a given, not as a pillar; and that for some parishes, an integral part of their stated expectations is an “outward looking” focus to the social needs of the local community and/or the developing world. This is not a pillar, because in other thriving parishes the energy available for outreach is poured primarily into explicit evangelisation efforts. Ultimately, the pastor and his leadership team must judge what seems appropriate, and what’s actually working, in any given situation.