Homily at St Philip Evans for the Presentation of the Lord, 2014.
“Insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting a different outcome.”
Today, the second of February, is the day on which the Church remembers how the Christ-child was presented to God in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was the customary thing to do – and more than that, it was required by the Jewish Law.
I would like us to spend a moment reflecting on the ways we present our children before God in our Temple, which is St Philip Evans Church.
When we present babies to be baptised, we’re asking God to make them members of God’s own family, so they receive the right to call God, “Father”. Baptism works without fail – if a person too young to understand, or old enough who agrees, receives the water of baptism,* it always bears fruit. That person becomes a member of the Church, and any personal sins already committed are washed away – there will be no time served in purgatory for sins committed before baptism!
When we present our Year 3 children to make their First Holy Communion, we are asking God to feed them with the body and blood of Jesus. Because an ordained priest has consecrated bread and wine using the rites of the Catholic Church, we have no doubt that the bread and wine have truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. Our children receive Jesus. Our duty is to help them recognise that what they are receiving is truly holy and deserves the greatest respect. If we failed to do that, we would give Our Lord great dishonour!
But what happens when our children reach the age of 12 or 13? We present them again to be confirmed. The bishop comes and lays his hands on them. Within a few months, if not weeks, our young people stop attending Mass. Many will not choose to follow the full teachings of the Catholic Church ever again. What is going wrong?
Confirmation is the sacrament by which baptised Catholics ask God to fill them anew with the Holy Spirit. The candidates already received the Holy Spirit in baptism, to make them holy – members of Christ’s Church. In confirmation they ask to receive God’s Spirit in a new way – to bring courage, power, and wisdom to do God’s work in the world.
But what happens if the Bishop confirms a young person who isn’t really interested in choosing to live life God’s way? That young person is still recognised by God as “confirmed” but the help God wants to give is blocked. If the young person doesn’t want to ask for God’s help, it will not be given. If that young person has serious sin in their life which is not being taken to confession, the power of the sacrament of confirmation is blocked, until such time as the young person repents and goes to confession.
So now, I want to say a word directly to the young people in our congregation. If you are attending High School and have not yet been confirmed, this is a message for you. And if you are still in Primary School, listen carefully, because I am talking about your future, too!
My dear young friends, for many years now the Church has been letting you down. I am not speaking particularly about this parish, or even about the whole of England and Wales – the Catholic Church across the developed world has been letting you down. Our priests and catechists have not been helping you to live the Christian life in the way Jesus is challenging us to live it. Our expectations of you have been too low.
Today’s Second Reading tells us that Jesus became “like us in every way”. It tells us that Jesus entered fully into our experience of being human. But have you ever spotted the flip side of that? This means that you, my dear young friends, are invited to “become like Jesus in every way”! Jesus became so human that we can become quite like him!
What do I mean by that?
Jesus went to the synagogue, regularly. If you are serious about becoming a disciple of Jesus, you must make a personal choice to come to weekend Mass. This is where Jesus teaches us through his Word. This is where Jesus feeds us with His Body and Blood. This is where the community of Jesus comes together. This is where you belong.
Jesus went out of his way to help people. If you are serious about becoming a disciple of Jesus, you too must have a spirit of service. This might mean going out to volunteer for some special project. Or it might just mean making a point of being helpful within your home and classroom. But Jesus did good to those who deserved it and to those who didn’t deserve it alike. This is what He asks you to do, too.
Jesus took time to pray. If you are serious about becoming a disciple of Jesus, our parish duty is to help you to listen to deeply to God’s Word and respond in praise, petition, sorrow and thanksgiving.
Jesus did some pretty amazing miracles too! Now, when I say that we can become like Jesus in every way, surely I don’t mean stuff like healing people and speaking God’s word straight into their lives?
Don’t underestimate what God’s Spirit can do! In every age God has raised up saints who can work miracles, from St Peter in the Gospels to Padre Pio in the 20th century. They were all young people once! If you open yourself up fully to God’s Spirit, there is no limit on the ways God can use you to bless other people. The late great Blessed John Paul II often said to young people – “Do not be afraid to become saints of the New Millennium”. Aim high! See where God takes you!
I am announcing today a new way of preparing for Confirmation in St Philip Evans Parish. Being confirmed will no longer depend on attending a “Confirmation Course”. Instead, our confirmation catechists are going to become personal mentors who will work with you individually. Because you are under 18 we still have to follow Child Protection rules, which mean the mentors will meet with you in different corners of the church building at the same time, but your mentor will be your personal coach in helping you live out the values of the Catholic Church. I will not be inviting Archbishop George to come and confirm anyone this year, 2014. I will not be putting anyone’s name forward to be confirmed until you have spent at least 12 months having a monthly session with a mentor and showing that you are serious about attending Mass, serving others, and connecting with God through prayer. I believe that you can do this, and I have great faith in you!
There’s a song I used to sing at Sunday School – the last line said to Jesus, let me discover “that following you is the greatest adventure of all”. I’ve been having that adventure from the time when I discovered Jesus was real at the age of eleven. Since then, the adventure has taken me to many different places and through lots of ups and downs in my emotional life. It’s not always been easy, but Jesus is still with me.
The thing is, this isn’t an adventure that you should have have to go on alone – this is why we are offering mentors to support you. Next month, on Thursday 6th March, we will be holding a launch meeting at 5.30 p.m. to explain more fully this new way of preparing for confirmation, and then we will be offering you a monthly mentoring meeting on Thursdays. If you are at Secondary School – and that includes Year 7 – you are invited to take part. Let the adventure begin!
Now, a final word to parents. We heard in today’s First Reading that when the Lord entered the Temple, he would “purify the sons of Levi”. This shows that even the Jewish priests could, at times, lose their fervour for doing things in the right way. There will always be times when we need to look at the way we do things in the Church and say “this needs refreshing”. That’s what I am trying to do here with preparation for Confirmation.
Some of you will no doubt feel anxious about this change. Can’t we go back to the old method, where we put the children on a short course and then call in the Archbishop? No. A short course is not the answer. Requiring our young people to come to sessions for 6 or 10 weeks will not make them disciples.
But surely, some of you will ask, confirmation will do the young people some good? Remember what I said a few minutes ago. “Insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting a different outcome.” All the evidence shows us that confirmation does not turn a young person into a follower of Jesus. It only gives power and strength to someone who already wants to make the journey. But if we have young people who wish to be committed church members, their lives will indeed be transformed with power when they become confirmed.
In today’s Gospel, the human parents of Jesus “did what the law required”. Our Church’s own teaching says that a young person is not ready for confirmation until they are ready and willing to live as followers of Jesus. So let us do what the law requires – and then our children will also be blessed, and will truly become light to the world.
* Let the reader understand that by “the water of baptism”, the right form of words accompanying it is implied!
With grateful thanks to Hannah Vaughan-Spruce for inspiring part of this homily.