Shepherding the Shepherds

Homily for Charismatic Lay Leaders (CCLFC graduates) at SENT, Brentwood (readings of the day)

Never confuse a fruit with a seed!

A seed is something which will grow into a beautiful new plant… but the fruit is the attractive surrounding that makes the seed palatable. You probably wouldn’t want to eat a seed on its own… and it would be very bad for the seed if you could digest it before it could find a place in the soil. So the seed is wrapped it in a beautiful sugary sweet colourful attractive wrapper… who could resist such a gift?

Our Lord said that “by their fruits we shall know them” so let’s look at the fruits we see in the Catholic Church around us today in England. Alas, the fruits are not that good! What does a normal parish look like?

It’s normal that around 5 out of 6 of the people who say they’re Catholics don’t go to Mass – and that includes the teachers in our Catholic schools.

It’s normal that almost everyone who presents a baby for baptism stands up in church and makes a promise that they will “raise the child Catholic” but have no intention of keeping the child connected with the parish community.

It’s normal that a parish priest has a vision for maintenance, keeping the familiar parish structures going as best they can with dwindling resources.

Our parishes are good at losing old people slowly and young people quickly. That’s a quick picture of a normal parish… so is it any surprise if we look around us at the state of the Church and feel a little depressed? Perhaps it even feels like we are sheep without a shepherd! You are here today because you have been formed for leadership in the church and in charismatic renewal. Now I know a few of you have some great stories of co-operation but often enough it seems that priests just don’t want to know about the Gifts of the Spirit or what you would like to offer to your parish. And if you weren’t already feeling powerless enough, then there is this reading from Hebrews 13:17 – “obey your leaders”! Oh no! Do we have to?

Sometimes it’s good to look at what underlies the Bible passage. I had a dim recollection that in Latin obaudio means “to listen” as much as it means “to do what you’re told”. But the Bible was written in Greek… so what is this word that has been translated for us as “obey”? In the Greek it’s “peithesthe” so I looked that up in a Bible reference book. It turns out the same word has a number of meanings… persuade… make friends with… seek to influence… very different from “obey” or “do what you’re told”. Now certainly another Greek word later in the sentence does means “submit to what your leaders asked of you” but these are two hugely different sentences: “obey and submit” or “persuade and submit”! “Persuade and submit” suggests you could be in a dialogue with the leader of your parish trying to convince him that there is a better way but being willing to accept his leadership while the conversation is ongoing.

Brothers and sisters: you may have read from the Scriptures that “without a vision the people perish”. But it’s worse than that… without a vision the people form… a parish! Now, in my years working as a priest among priests, I’ve realised that what priests do is this: they imitate what they’ve seen generations of priests do before them. It’s part of our human condition that few of us pick up a textbook and apply it; most of us look for heroes and role models. Even when a priest has spent five or six years in seminary, probably at the back of their minds is a model of their own parish priest, or some priest they’ve admired as they’ve grown up or who has drawn them into the priesthood. Sometimes that’s a priest with the heart of a pastor caring for people’s wounds but not wanting to challenge them; sometimes it’s a priest with a hunger to work for social justice projects; or perhaps, especially with some of our younger priests, they reflect on a priest who gave them a strong sense of identity, because he was willing to goes against the tide of public opinion, or insisted on using a bit of Latin – even a lot of Latin!  – when he celebrated Mass in public.

Sometimes it feels like our parish priests are shepherds without a shepherd. Where has the wider leadership of the Church offered them any concrete vision beyond: “Don’t lose too many people, keep sending a third of your collection for the running costs of the diocese, and don’t rock the boat?”

I wonder how many priests have a vision what their parish could be if they were open to all the gifts God was offering? At the start of the sermon I talked about what is “normal” in our parishes, in the sense of our common experience. I’d now like to talk about what could be normal – using the word normal in another sense, that of setting a norm or standard that we should aspire to.

It’s not uncommon that I read a book that makes me laugh out loud, especially if it’s by Terry Pratchett… but it’s rare that I read a book that makes me whoop for joy. About six years ago I read Sherry Weddell‘s book Forming Intentional Disciples. That book is a masterclass of how we encourage people to become followers of Christ and active members of the church… but that’s not what I’m going to focus on today. I want to share another thing that Sherry wrote, which made my heart sing for joy. In her youth she spent time with a group of other young enthusiastic Catholics and together they agreed on this description of what a normal parish looks. When I read this, for the first time since I became a Catholic in 1990, I rejoiced. At last, here was someone else who “got it”! I wasn’t the only person in the world who believed a parish should be like this! Sherry and her group agreed on seven “norms” for a Catholic parish. I’m going to put them up on the screen, and some of you can read them out…

1. It is normal for lay Catholics to have a living, growing love relationship with God.

2. It is normal for lay Catholics to be excited Christian activists.

3. It is normal for lay Catholics to be knowledgeable about their faith, the Scriptures, the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church, and the history of the Church.

4. It is normal for lay Catholics to know what their charisms of service are and to be using them effectively in fulfilment of their vocation or call in life.

5. It is normal for lay Catholics to know that they have a vocation/mission in life (primarily in the secular world) given to them by God. It is normal for lay Catholics to be actively engaged in discerning and living this vocation.

6. It is normal for lay Catholics to have the fellowship of other committed lay Catholics available to them, to encourage, nurture, and discern as they attempt to follow Jesus.

7. It is normal for the local parish to function consciously as a house of formation for lay Catholics, which enables and empowers lay Catholics to do #1-6 above.

Now, my dear leaders of the church, how do you feel about a church like this? Is this a church you’d want to join? Is this a parish you’d like to be part of? I think it is… but how do we bridge the gap between the reality of the parish where you live and worship at the moment, and what church could be?

You are leaders. Some people lead with authority – but others lead with influence. You have a prophetic role to speak hope and vision into the lives of your parish priests. You can plant seeds of hope in the heart of your parish priest. But for him to accept the seed, it must be presented in a fruit he will find attractive. So, my dear brothers and sisters take compassion on our priests, and set yourself to teach them at length. But here’s the thing: don’t confuse the fruit with the seed.

If you want to plant a seed in the heart of your parish priest, this will take time. You must prepare the ground and then offer him a fruit that he will find attractive. We know lots of priests get suspicious about the trappings of charismatic renewal: for some, it is too loud or in-your-face, or unlike anything they’ve experienced in their own personal reality. Others don’t know how to handle prophetic and healing gifts as parish leaders. Some might dismiss it as too Protestant, despite the writings of all the popes since St Paul VI welcoming it as “a chance for the church”. Now, we can try and persuade our priests of the merits of charismatic renewal … or we can do something smarter. We can offer fruit that will interest them!

What sort of fruit will attract a priest? Well, someone who offers help with a project that the parish needs will gain a priest’s respect and trust. This will take time – so like Jesus, we have to set out to teach “at length”. I know at least two different parishes where people who are very involved in renewal won the trust of the priest by volunteering to clean the toilets or hoover the church. If you’re serious about your commitment to the parish, you will come with the heart of a servant. Today’s lesson from Hebrews does talk about good works. Now good works aren’t the heart of what we do but they are the fruit of a person committed to Christ, and they are a vital tool in gaining the trust of your parish priest.

Now comes the hard part. Once your priest trusts you, you must stir up curiosity in his heart, but without leaving him feeling judged or inadequate. A good way to do this is to share stories of parishes that are thriving… but letting him set the pace. Where do you find such stories? Let’s see what happens when you Google “successful Catholic parishes”…

Oh, look! 28,200,000 results – in less than half a second!

Now the trick is to drop what you learn into conversation and let the priest set the pace. “Have you heard about the Catholic Church which more than doubled its congregation in three years? What about the one which raised its level of engagement from 7% to 40%? Did you hear about many other churches that deliberately look for the gifts that are present in their members and then deploy them in the most appropriate ministries? These churches are going from strength to strength… so we don’t have to settle for being a declining church! We are called to be a church that bears fruit, in season and out of season… but when the shepherds have lost hope, you need to be the shepherds to the shepherds, and teach them at length until their passion is renewed and restored.

So remember: never confuse the fruit with the seed. Offer your parish priest the fruits that will make him trust you and listen to what you have to say. He will receive the seed of a “normal” church when he finds it surrounded with the fruit that he will find attractive. I know it can be tough being the only charismatic in your parish or just seeing the church declining around us; but dare to dream that it can be different, and dare to dream that you can do something about it. I can’t say it better than the Letter to the Hebrews (13:16):

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have;
God is pleased by sacrifices of that kind.

So share what you have received. But share it smart! Share it slowly! And you will renew the face of the Church.

Go and Jump off a Cliff!

Homily at the Sion Community Family Day, for the Fourth Sunday of Year C

“Go and jump off a cliff!”

You’d have to be very angry to tell anyone to do that! But there are times we can and do get angry with God.

Our Sion gathering today is themed around the Archangel Raphael, whose very name means “God heals” – but healing stirs up powerful emotions.

In today’s Gospel, as Jesus gives his speech, his listeners go from “speaking well of him” when he says “freedom is coming” to total rage when he reminds them of two miracles that God worked to protect pagans while the Jewish people were suffering.

In the Book of Tobit, which is probably a Jewish parable rather than history, we read of the good and generous man called Tobit who suffers years of blindness and a pious Jewish woman called Sarah who, through no fault of her own, is cursed with a demon who kills all her potential husbands. Through the intervention of St Raphael, healing comes to Tobit, and freedom and a happy marriage to Sarah, but not before years of suffering. The Book of Job, too, tells of a good and pious man who was deeply afflicted before receiving healing. Somewhere in the Gospels we read how Jesus cured, as a sign, a man who had been paralysed for 38 years – I’m sure he was grateful for his healing but also, in his prayers, asked God whether 38 days might not have been sufficient?

Last week’s Second Reading told us that some people are given gifts of healing, and some are given gifts of prophecy. This suggests that others among us are not given those gifts. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for healing anyway – but it does mean only certain people in the community will have a high “success rate”. And even for them, success may not come straight away.

After a long period of Bible study, a pastor called John Wimber reached the conclusion, that faithfulness to God required us to pray for people to be healed. He didn’t belong to a church with a tradition of praying for healing, but felt he had to do so anyway. He spent 6 months praying for healing at the end of all his Sunday church services, with no success. Then he got one. Then the floodgates opened! His faithfulness led to the founding of the Vineyard churches in 1982.

In my own ministry, I’ve prayer for a lot of people to be healed, but only seen a few tangible results. One day, I went to visit a friend who lived outside the parish: she asked if I would bring the holy oil to anoint her friend who was suffering from back pain. When I did so, two remarkable things happened: the woman in pain received a momentary experience of God’s loving presence, and the pain went away. Now in my twelve years of priesthood, that was only the second time that a remarkable physical recovery quickly followed an anointing, and the first time, as far as I know, that someone had a personal experience of God’s presence. That was six years ago, and I haven’t had a similar powerful experience since.

I once preached a sermon in one of my parishes telling that story to explore the mystery of the God who “heals sometimes”. I wondered out loud whether we limit the power of the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick by our low expectations; the Sacraments become more fruitful when celebrated in a community with strong faith. On that day there had been a small community of faith – the friend who believed enough to ask me to bring the oil, the sick girl, who was also a fervent Christian, and myself, a priest longing for God to do something.

What I was trying to achieve was to encourage the people in my parish to call for the priest and gather round and pray as soon as any family member fell seriously ill. What actually happened was one angry family spoke to me later: “A few months ago our granny died. We had gathered around her bedside and said lots of prayers. So now you’re saying its our fault for not having enough faith!” – and that family left my parish to go and worship elsewhere.

A few years later, I told that story at a Celebrate weekend. One of the leadership team came up to me afterwards, very worried: if I emphasised the importance of a priest giving the Sacrament of Anointing, it might discourage lay people from laying on hands and praying for healing! Now that wasn’t the message I was trying to give at all – only to say that there’s a time and a place for calling the priest, and it should become a more normal part of our Catholic life! Too many Catholics think the Sacrament of the Sick is only meant as a “last rite” to send our souls to heaven! But in fact it’s for any “serious” illness, one which creates danger of death or limits the quality of life.

There is also a very important role for lay people to pray for healing. There are two ways we can pray for a healing – one is to lay on hands and simply ask God to do something; the other is to ask for a prophecy to guide us. But if we have the gift of prophecy, we can only minister powerfully to the people and diseases which God speaks about – not to the other problems which are present.

Prophecy can also stir up hope and anger. I’ve been to many prayer meetings where people have received words for me; and many where they have received words for other people, but not for me. Plus, as today’s Scripture says, in our limited humanity, we can only “prophecy in part” – many people who pray for us will filter a genuine word from God through their own expectations of what they think God wants to say to us, or in the absence of a clear word, share their own wishful thinking. Moving in prophecy calls for a tricky balance of expectancy – we are called to be hungry for this spiritual gift – and humility: it’s a gift, and God doesn’t always give it!

So yes, healing and prophecy are difficult subjects. It’s hard to preach about these without stirring up strong emotions. How many of us here today know someone who has a testimony of receiving healing? How many of us have at least one person in our lives, now or in the past, for whom we have prayed long and hard, but healing didn’t come? The promise of healing stirs up hope and anger in equal measure. And how many of us have gone to a prayer meeting, hoping that God will have a prophetic word for us today, and come home disappointed?

We should be ambitious for the higher gifts – that God would work miracles of healing and give prophetic words through us. But this is dangerous territory! If we’re going to go there, we need a big dose of love. I’m speaking of the kind of love which is not selfish, jealous or resentful. I’m speaking of the kind of love that rejoices whenever a healing or prophecy comes, but takes no offence when it does not – or comes to someone else, or through someone else’s prayers. The prophet Jeremiah was told to “brace himself like a fighter”. If we want to see prophecy and healing as a normal part of our church, we need to be prepared for disappointment – and expectant of miracles. We need to be ready for other people to tell us to go jump off a cliff. But what we are really called to do is walk on water – and then means we have to fix our eyes on Jesus, wait for the sound of his voice and – when he calles – get out of the boat!

 

Peace to All People of Good Will

Homily for The Solemnity of the Nativity, 2018 at St Philip Evans 

“Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill.”

One hundred years ago, for the first time in five brutal years, Cardiff woke up to a Christmas at peace.

For us today, herald angels singing and refrains of “Gloria in excelsis!” are part of the magic and music that give us that “Christmas feeling”. It’s easy to ignore the little line, “peace to people of goodwill”, as one of the familiar phrases we expect to hear in this season.

But imagine those who gathered to celebrate Christmas in 1918, just weeks after the armistice which ended the First World War. Around every dinner table, families would have remembered absent members, and friends, who had laid down their lives. Their great relief that much of the world was at peace would have been mixed with deep questions – “was it worth the cost?” And around many tables, those who faced mortal peril, both those who fought and those whose homelands were invaded, would have been most profoundly aware that they were no longer at war. Peace had returned. This Christmas in Indonesia, many families will have similar mixed emotions as they think of survivors and victims of last week’s tsunami. And yet the rhythm of the year echoes what happened on that unique day when angels spoke into human history:

“Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill.”

But what did the angels mean in their song? That God was pleased with the human race in its entirety, and therefore sent us Jesus? Or did they mean that God was sending a gift of peace to be received by those of us who are people of goodwill, while the rest of the world faces God’s anger?

The Bible contains beautiful words. Jesus himself said that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” And that’s the key. When we ask whether God is punishing us or protecting us, we should look not only at this life we live on earth, but eternal life – the life the angels are already living. God sent Baby Jesus so, as a man dying on the Cross, he would open the door to heaven for anyone willing to follow him through it. Jesus didn’t encourage us to think of disasters, natural or man-made, as signs of God’s punishment; rather, he spoke of God’s anger coming on souls in the afterlife who had harmed children, ignored people in need, or refused to forgive their enemies.

So I say again: “Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill.”

In these Christmas words, we hear ourselves being challenged. Are we truly people of good will?

God’s rewards and wrath are reserved for us in heaven; here on Earth, God has left the responsibility for war and peace with us. He sent Christ, the Prince of Peace, to encourage us to live at peace with one another, and to pour his gift of peace into the heart of anyone who asks. And we can ask! We can pray for God to give us the good will to make peace with all people.

Christmas is a time of year which offers us special opportunities. Family members who might not be together for the rest of the year will be gathered together around one table. Perhaps this means that you will be forced to spend time with a relative or friend you don’t get on with – perhaps even someone who has broken a promise to you, publicly embarrassed you, or harmed you in some other way. This may feel like a threat, but it’s actually an opportunity. As human beings, our natural reaction is to ask “Who started it?” and seek an apology. But that’s not God’s way. No, the question God asks is “Who is willing to end it?” The will to make peace is a good will.

“Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill.”

Are you looking in the manger for a God who stops earthquakes, tsunamis, and man’s inhumanity to man? You will seek in vain.

But are you looking for a God who is as vulnerable as a baby in a manger, who offers us the strength to be meek? You are looking in the right place.

The Prince of Peace came not to spare us from disasters, but to lead us through them on the royal road of forgiveness and generosity.

If you are looking for peace in your life, come to the silence of this Church; come and kneel before this crib. Ask God to fill your heart with the power to will what is good for others. It is through the goodwill in your heart that Cardiff can wake up to a Christmas at peace.

I have in my prayer-book a little card from the peacemaking organisation called Pax Christi, and I’d like to leave you with the prayer which is written on it – it’s by the late leader of the Taizé community in France, Brother Roger. It says this:

O Risen Christ,Icon of Jacob and Esau embracing and other Bible scenes of peacemaking
You breathe your Holy Spirit on us
and you tell us: ‘Peace be yours’.
Opening ourselves to your peace –
letting it penetrate the harsh and
rocky ground of our hearts –
means preparing ourselves to be
bearers of reconciliation
wherever you may place us.
But you know that at times
we are at a loss.
So come and lead us
to wait in silence,
to let a ray of hope shine forth
in our world.

“Glory to God in the Highest! And on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill.”

And may the blessing of the Prince of Peace fill your hearts with joy. A Blessed Christmas to you all.


The phrasing of “on earth peace, peace to people of goodwill” is from Christopher Walker’s New Celtic Liturgy, which is the Mass setting being used at my Christmas Masses.

The End of the World (St Philip Evans Parish)

Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent, Year C at St Philip Evans 

“When will these things come to pass?”

That was the natural question on the lips of Jesus’ followers when they heard these terrible predictions, and it’s a natural question for us to ask, too.

We can predict, reasonably well, when some disasterous things will take place. In fact, the word “dis-aster” literally means “bad star” and we know that one day, our nearest star, the Sun, will go bad. In about five thousand million years, it will run out of nuclear fuel and swell up, scorching planet Earth to a cinder, or perhaps even engulfing it entirely!

Five billion years is a long way away. But don’t relax yet! Some of the latest results from mapping the 300,000 stars nearest our Sun tell us that in just one and one-third million years, a passing star will cause thousands of comets to rain down upon planet Earth and perhaps cause other disruption in our solar system.

Cosmic disasters might be too far in the future to trouble our children’s children, but by the year 2080, it’s forecast that more than a million homes in the UK might be at risk of flooding, and our coastal roads and railway lines could be badly affected too. I talked about the environment a few weeks ago so I won’t go into detail again, but we can all do our bit by reducing the amount of energy we consume.

There’s another disasterous date to put on your calendar. 2036. That’s a mathematical prediction of when the number of people worshipping in this church will fall to zero, based on changing congregation numbers since 2009. The number of First Communions would fall to zero in 2030. Zero baptisms by 2024!

Now, these numbers are crude. It’s not always the right things to fit a straight light to a graph to make predictions. But what is clear is that the numbers for our parish are falling – of baptisms, of communions, and of people attending Mass. And that’s typical of most parishes. But Jesus didn’t call the church to shrink. He called us to go out and make disciples!

We live in an uncertain time. I was hoping that Archbishop George would have named my successor by now. We are all wondering whether there will be another priest ready to lead this parish in January. But whether you have another priest straight away or not, we all have a task, the work Jesus left to all his followers – making disciples of all nations. A priest can’t do it all on his own, anyway. So who in this congregation is actively asking, “What can we do to make our congregation grow? How do we help people who might leave, to stay? How can we ask new people to join?”

I’ve got good news for you. Some Catholic Churches are growing! The Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, grew its Mass attendance from 1500 to 4000 in a few years! The Church of St Benedict in Nova Scotia raised its level of parishioner engagement from 7% to 40% in a few years! And there’s more good news! If you have succeeded in really engaging parishioners you don’t have to appeal for money or volunteers – engaged Catholics want to give, and give generously!

Avoiding disaster may need us to make some painful decisions. If the way we currently run our church is causing us to shrink or at least stay static, carrying on doing what we’re doing isn’t likely to make us grow. Maybe to be more effective we should be pooling our resources with other parishes. For now, this parish is able to pay its own way: we have cleared our debt. But we have barely enough people to fill the volunteer roles we need to keep everything running.

The Archbishop has already asked the parishes from Whitchurch thru Llanedeyrn to co-operate in what we call the Northern Arc… one natural next step is to ask whether St Philip Evans is big enough to survive and grow as an independent parish. And if the answer is “yes” right now, would it still be “yes” if most of our Indian parishioners were offered a Syro-Malabar service every weekend? Can we still run all the things an independent parish needs to run? They say turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, but it’s chickens who don’t make painful changes to secure the best possible future. The day might come when difficult questions have to be asked about Mass times or even merging with other parishes.

Even so, I’m not expecting change in the next year or two. The Archbishop says it is important that this parish has a priest to welcome new residents moving into all the new housing in this area. Perhaps we’re not at the point where we need to think about a merger. Perhaps there are enough resources in this community to be able to invest in things that will make this congregation grow. So which of you are actively asking “What makes successful parishes grow? When can we learn from thriving Catholic parishes?”

Next summer, all the priests and deacons in Cardiff will attend a three-day conference with an American lay woman, Sherry Weddell, who had a brilliant idea. She studied the stories of dozens of converts who started out as non-Catholics and ended up as very active Catholics. What do they all have in common? Sherry found out, and if we understand how non-Catholics become active Catholics, we can become very effective at inviting more non-Catholics to do the same!

All across the diocese, parishes are now being asked to run 6-week-long reading groups to study Sherry’s book, which is called Forming Intentional Disciplesto try out some of the ideas, and send delegates on June 15th to a day when they can share their experiences and receive coaching from Sherry herself. That could happen here, if a few of you choose to start a study group and work on encouraging parish growth. You don’t need to wait for a new priest to organise that!

“When will these things come to pass?” the disciples asked the Lord. “No-one knows the day or hour except the Father”, Jesus replied, speaking of the end of the world. But as for when studying and investing in the future of this parish will take place – that’s up to you!

The End of the World (Christ the King Parish)

Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent, Year C at Christ the King.

“When will all these things come to pass?”

That was the natural question on the lips of Jesus’ followers when they heard these terrible predictions, and it’s a natural question for us to ask, too.

We can predict, reasonably well, when some disastrous things will take place. In fact, the word “dis-aster” literally means “bad star” and we know that one day, our nearest star, the Sun, will go bad. In about five thousand million years, it will run out of nuclear fuel and swell up, scorching planet Earth to a cinder, or perhaps even engulfing it entirely!

Five billion years is a long way away. But don’t relax yet! Some of the latest results from mapping the 300,000 stars nearest our Sun tell us that in just one and one-third million years, a passing star will cause thousands of comets to rain down upon planet Earth and perhaps cause other disruption in our solar system.

Cosmic disasters might be too far away to trouble our children’s children, but by the year 2080, it’s forecast that more than a million homes in the UK might be at risk of flooding, and our coastal roads and railway lines could be badly affected too. I talked about the environment a few weeks ago so I won’t go into detail again, but we can all do our bit by reducing the amount of energy we consume.

There’s another disastrous date to put on your calendar. 2059. That’s a mathematical prediction of when the number of people worshipping in this church will fall to zero, based on changing congregation numbers since 2009. Oh dear… we’ve only just celebrated being open for 40 years, and in another 40 years there will be no-one left!

Actually, my prediction may be a bit off. Christ the King Parish did rather well in holding the number of worshippers steady for most of the last decade, until the numbers took a dip when we lost one of the three Masses. So it’s not really fair to fit a straight line to data with a big kink at the end. But what we do know is that in most Catholic parishes, the number of people going to Mass is gradually going down. And Jesus didn’t call the church to shrink. He called us to go out and make disciples!

This congregation has a reputation for being very active in working for justice. It’s great to be involved with Foodbank and other projects. But what about the specific task Jesus left his followers – making disciples of all nations? Who in this congregation is actively asking, “What can we do to make our congregation grow? How do we help people who might leave, to stay? How can we ask new people to join?”

I’ve got good news for you. Some Catholic Churches are growing! The Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, grew its Mass attendance from 1500 to 4000 in a few years! The Church of St Benedict in Nova Scotia raised its level of parishioner engagement from 7% to 40% in a few years! And there’s more good news! If you have succeeded in really engaging parishioners you don’t have to appeal for money or volunteers – engaged Catholics want to give, and give generously!

Avoiding disaster may need us to make some painful decisions. If the way we currently run our church is causing us to shrink or at least stay static, carrying on doing what we’re doing isn’t likely to make us grow. Maybe to be more effective we should be pooling our resources with other parishes. For the time being, Christ the King is an independent parish with its own building, which happens to share a parish priest. If the congregation does shrink – and when you look at the age profile, that does look likely – the day will come when you can’t afford your own building. They say turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, but it’s chickens who don’t make painful changes to secure the best possible future. The day might come when difficult questions have to be asked about Mass times or even merging with other parishes. The Archbishop has already asked the parishes from Whitchurch thru Llanedeyrn to co-operate in what we call the Northern Arc… this is an informal partnership at the moment but things could change.

Even so, Christ the King has done well in recent years. Perhaps you’re not at the point where you need to think about a merger. Perhaps there are enough resources in this community to be able to invest in things that will make this congregation grow. So which of you are actively asking “What makes successful parishes grow? When can we learn from thriving Catholic parishes?”

Next summer, all the priests and deacons in Cardiff will attend a three-day conference with an American lay woman, Sherry Weddell, who had a brilliant idea. She studied the stories of dozens of converts who started out as non-Catholics and ended up as very active Catholics. What do they all have in common? Sherry found out, and if we understand how non-Catholics become active Catholics, we can become very effective at inviting more non-Catholics to do the same!

All across the diocese, parishes are now being asked to run 6-week-long reading groups to study Sherry’s book, which is called Forming Intentional Disciplesto try out some of the ideas, and send delegates on June 15th to a day when they can share their experiences and receive coaching from Sherry herself. That could happen here, if a few of you choose to start a study group and work on encouraging parish growth.

“When will these things come to pass?” the disciples asked the Lord. “No-one knows the day or hour except the Father”, Jesus replied, speaking of the end of the world. But as for when studying and investing in the future of this parish will take place – that’s up to you!

 

For the Poor!

Homily for the 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans – World Day of the Poor

Listen!

We can listen with our ears. But we can also listen with our hearts, and we can listen with our eyes.

I’d like to invite you to use your eyes to listen to this prayer.

I wonder what thoughts and feelings that stirred up in you?

Perhaps there are people we don’t really want to accept in our lives, and that makes us feel uncomfortable. They are too demanding, too uncomfortable.

Perhaps we are jarred by the line which addresses God as “Mother”. To be sure, Jesus reserved the name “Father” for God and the best way to understand God, is as the best possible Father. But God is beyond gender, and uncomfortable words teach us something. Rembrandt painted the father of the prodigal son with one motherly hand, and even Jesus compared himself to a brooding mother hen!

The world around us seems full of injustice. The news in recent years has been full of stories of migrants from poor countries reaching rich nations, or dying in the attempt. In our own nation, too, there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. Just this week, a UN inspector has criticised Britain for not doing enough to address poverty, and the Government’s plans for Universal Credit, which started as a good idea to reward work, have suffered from both cuts in funding and practical difficulties in making the system work well for vulnerable citizens.

In the face of such injustice, our hearts cry out: “Why doesn’t God do something?”

Strangely, today’s readings are partly about God not doing something. If you listen carefully to the Books of Daniel and the Apocalypse, you will hear that God will allow a time of distress to come upon the world before God’s faithful people are rescued. Even so, the saints in heaven, who have faced torture and persecution because of their faithfulness to God, are the ones loudest in singing God’s praises!

Crystal McVea was a woman who had every reason to hate God. She was abused as a child, and although she turned to God for help, and chose to be baptised at the age of nine, her suffering did not end. The emotional wounds of what she had been through continued to scar her teenage years. Later, her six-year-old son suffered severe brain damage because of a traffic accident. Aged 33, Crystal herself was taken into hospital with pancreatitis – and during treatment she was clinically dead for nine minutes.

Now, I’m always cautious about claims of “near death experiences” as proof of anything about God or heaven, but Crystal’s story is truly remarkable. You would have expected her to blame God or ask all the obvious “why” questions. That’s what she expected of herself. But that’s not what happened. As soon as she became aware of the loving presence she identified as “God”, her instinctive reaction was to fall down and worship. The expected questions, “Why didn’t you love me? Why did you let this happen?” melted away, and only one question remained: “Why didn’t I do more for You?” Her life was changed and her love for God was immeasurably deepened!

We are faced with two brutal facts. One is that there is suffering in this world. The other is that we claim “God is love”. So either we are wrong about God, or somehow, that perfect love exists alongside our broken world. Although Jesus worked a few miracles which helped people immediately, his mission was to teach us to give generously. Miracles may happen in answer to prayer, but God is not going to fix all the world’s problems from above. Rather, God has entrusted that work to us.

Listen! Pope Francis has designated today as the World Day of the Poor. His aspiration is that every parish should put on a meal this weekend where we can sit down at table with members of our local community who could never return the favour. We are not yet organised enough as a parish to do this, but today we will acknowledge what we can do. We do collect gifts of food for the foodbank – today you can bring them up personally as part of our collection. We do collect clothes for asylum seekers and refugees living in Cardiff – a bag of such clothes will form part of our collection today. We do have a small “Listening Group”, whose role is to listen to the needs of the local community – first from the volunteers who get involved, but later by going out into the community to meet people. Could you be one of our listeners?

Today’s Letter to the Hebrews starts with an image of the Jewish priests offering daily animal sacrifices, but explains this is no longer needed because Jesus died for all of us. Even so, as Christians, we are called to make a daily sacrifice. Not one of animals, but one of our own time, treasure and talent. The needs of the poor call us to make a daily gift of ourselves to the people we meet. And in our procession of gifts today, our worship of God is entwined with our gifts for the poor. The two cannot be separated. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI once said that “love for the poor is liturgy”.

God will do something about it. He will do something in you and through you. Elaine, who leads our Listening Group, has asked that we should say this prayer together which reminds us of our own responsibility. So let’s pray it, and listen!

Christ has no body but mine,
No hands, no feet on earth but mine.
Mine are the eyes with which he looks,
Compassion on this world.
Mine are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Mine are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Mine are the hands, mine are the feet.
Mine are the eyes, mine is his body,
Christ has no body now but mine,
No hands, no feet on earth but mine,
Mine are the eyes with which he looks
With compassion on this world.

Christ has no body on earth but mine.


The words of the prayer above are derived from a text often attributed to St Teresa of Avila but in fact more likely to be the work of Mark Pearse and Sarah Elizabeth Rowntree. They must be understood poetically; Christ is of course present in the Blessed Sacrament on earth, but in this form he does not physically go out to minister to the poor.

Acknowledgement: I first read the story of Crystal McVea in Imagine Heaven.

Certain Joy

Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Year C (Rejoicing Sunday) at St Philip Evans.

“There is no need to worry,” says St Paul in today’s letter.

That’s easy for him to say! In fact there’s lots we can worry about, and we worry above all when we are faced with uncertainty. So what causes uncertainty?

Sometimes, we choose to test ourselves by going on an adventure. That’s different. We deliberately push ourselves out of our comfort zone to stretch ourselves. We have the comfort of knowing we can turn round and come home whether we succeed or fail in reaching our goal. But when we speak of ‘uncertainty’ it’s because it’s our very life ‘at home’ which is threatened.

We face uncertainty when we try to live beyond our resources. For a time, we manage, but then we hit the limit. It might be a credit card limit. It might be a question of reapplying for our job when our employer is downsizing. It might be a person with failing health who knows they must enter a care home. In these cases, our instinct is to fight against the inevitable.

Have you ever faced a situation where you have to work harder and harder to keep all the plates spinning, all the balls in the air, and deep down you just KNOW you can’t keep this up for much longer? Our human nature clings to what is familiar and doesn’t want the indignity of saying “I can’t…” If we only we had the courage to say “I need to downsize, I need to let go,” we could find ourselves living in the relative certainty of living within our means. But how hard that is in practice!

We face a time of uncertainty in the Catholic Church, because we are living beyond our means… and for this, we need a quick history lesson. A hundred years ago, there were roughly two million Catholics and 4,000 priests in England and Wales. That’s one priest for every 500 Catholics. Between 1930 and 1940, lots of young men offered themselves for the priesthood. So by the end of the Second World War, there was one extra priest for every four already serving a population. Bishops had more priests that they had parishes available, and most of them wanted to be parish priests. So when cities like Cardiff grew outwards in the 1950s and 60s, bishops decided to build lots of new churches for them.

But was this hike in the number of priests a blip or the new normal state of affairs? We know now that it was a blip. By the 70s we were back down to one priest for every 500 Catholics. Today, in England and Wales, there’s one Catholic priest for every 750 Catholics. By building lots of churches in cities like ours, we’ve accidentally created a pattern too big to sustain, and that’s why we’re living with uncertainty.

How, then, can we trade in uncertainty for security? Certainly, we can pray for lots of vocations to the priesthood. Indeed, that’s one of the few things Jesus explicitly told us to pray for – that God would send labourers to the harvest. But considering the time it takes for a young man to apply, be selected and complete his training, any fruits of today’s prayers wouldn’t be seen until nearly 2030. Today, too, most Catholics have smaller families. Do we have the courage to say to Catholic parents: “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if your son, your ONLY son, discovered he was called to be a priest?”

Every parish longs to have the undivided attention of its own parish priest, but because we built so many small parishes in the 60s and 70s, that can’t happen for the foreseeable future.

So what can bring us certainty?

One answer is to ask, “How do we run this church with only part-time attention from a priest? What structures and leadership do we need to make that work well?”

Another possible answer is to say, “We’re too small to be a church on our own, we ought to be part of something bigger.”

These are not comfortable answers. But they are realistic answers. Maybe in one or two places, a sick or elderly priest who can’t manage more might be given care of a small parish, but that can’t work everywhere. The only way to re-establish certainty is to ask for no more than our fair share of the number of priests available, or to become part of a parish so large it merits having its own priest.

Sometimes I hear naive Catholics saying: “We don’t have to downsize! God will provide!”

But in fact God has provided. In Wales and England combined, we are rich with priests! In the Philippines, there is one priest for every 8,000 Catholics. In the USA, there is one priest for every 2000 Catholics. Here in the UK, we are blessed indeed to have one priest for every 750 Catholics but we have abused such riches by building very small parishes… and that in turn means we, like all small parishes, only have a small pool of talent to call on for Children’s Liturgy, church maintenance, catechesis, care of the poor and all those other things Christ calls us to do together.

John the Baptist went out into the wilderness, and challenged people to change. To the tax collectors and the soldiers, he said, ‘Don’t take more than your fair share.’

Change is never easy, but we can choose to change when we recognise that we are changing to something which is just and fair.

Be certain that God loves you.

Be certain that God has blessed our country richly with more than our fair share of priests to serve us.

Be certain that our fair share in St Philip Evans is less than one whole priest to ourselves.

There is no need to worry. Pray to God for priests. Pray to God for this parish to have its fair share of the available priests. And pray for your heart to be content if what you enjoy in the future is smaller than what you have enjoyed in the past. This rose vestment is a sign of the purple pain of waiting blended with the white glory of God’s full blessings. So rejoice: your future is rosy!


There’s good evidence that the number of vocations falls when families are smaller in this 2011 research paper.

I’ve written elsewhere about the history of Catholic statistics in England & Wales.