1,000 Sheep

Homily at Corpus Christi Coventry for the 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C – Home Mission Sunday

Someone’s missing. Have a look around you and see if you can work out who.

OK. At the risk of stating the obvious, your Parish Priest is missing. But please God, he’ll be recovered from surgery soon enough. We’re not listing him among the lost yet.

Try the benches close to you. Is there anyone who usually sits there who’s not there today? And if someone is missing, do you know their name? Do you know how to contact them?

Your parish priest is the shepherd of the Corpus Christi flock, but the responsibility for the sheep is not only his. He might not know that a sheep is missing unless you tell him.

Now have a think about your own family. How many of them are Catholics who are missing from Mass? This is where it gets tricky. You see, not all lost sheep WANT to be found. What happens when the shepherd makes a special effort to bring the 100th sheep home, only for it to bolt through the gate again at the first opportunity? So if you know a sheep who doesn’t want to be part of this parish, what can you do?

If some sheep genuinely don’t like what the Catholic Church stands for, you won’t have much success dragging them back. So the best thing you can do for that lost sheep in your family is to gently share your own experiences of how your Catholic faith changes your life for the better. Where does your faith give you hope? Where does it cause you to rejoice? And here I’ll offer you a hint: as long as you follow Jesus, avoid sin, go to confession when you fail, and, take communion regularly, you are guaranteed a place in heaven. Turn away from Our Lord, and you lose that guarantee.

There again, maybe someone in your family feels they;re no longer welcome in Church. There are all sorts of reasons for that. Perhaps someone’s marriage has broken down and they’ve pursued a new relationship but feel like an outlaw. Perhaps a priest, or a member of some congregation, has spoken harshly to them and made them fearful of trying again. Or maybe they’re just plain ashamed of something in their life and feel their face doesn’t fit in church any more.

So consider St Paul. Paul who approved of murder. Paul the persecutor of Christians. Paul who had to eat humble pie when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Paul who knew Jesus was offering mercy and a seat in the Kingdom of Heaven. Paul as a Christian on his own in Damascus could manage. Paul returning to Jerusalem trying to persuade the apostles he was now one of them? That must have felt very difficult.

Let’s make it as easy as possible for the lost sheep to return. Let’s remind the lost members of our families that Pope Francis has asked priests to ‘accompany’ those who feel lost from the Church community – and that there is a place for everyone in these pews.

Have another look around you. Who else is missing? What about people you know who aren’t Catholics? God wants them to be part of his church, too! Why are they missing? Jesus came to rescue the human race, to invite EVERYONE to be part of his church family. Who does Jesus want to see as part of the Catholic Church? EVERYONE! Let’s hear it again – EVERYONE!

One parish priest can’t do that on his own. There are people each of you will come into contact with this week, whom your parish priest will never meet unless you bring them to church. Someone is missing from this church today because you haven’t invited them to come yet.

On average, each Catholic Church or Mass Centre in England serves a community of 20,000 people – of whom 500 to 1500 are Catholics. We don’t need to target members of other Christian Churches (though it’s great when they want to become Catholics too) – but that still leaves well over 10,000 people living in this corner of Coventry who don’t attend any kind of religious worship on Sunday. A few years ago, a survey showed there were 3 million people in the UK who never attend church but would if a friend invited them to come. That means, that within the parish boundaries of Corpus Christi, in this suburb of Coventry, there are one thousand people who never go to Church – but would, if you invited them. What kind of Catholic, then, knows that there are 1,000 lost sheep in their own community but never invites them to come to Church? What kind of Catholic knows that their church offers a secure path to heaven but doesn’t offer that to their friends?

I know it’s not easy talking about our faith to people who don’t share it. So I want to give a special shout-out to those among you who are willing to talk about faith. Some of you have been catechists to children preparing for Confirmation or First Communion – thank you! Some of you have brought adults to church and walked with them as they have prepared to become Catholic – thank you! Many of you have tried to share faith with your own children and grandchildren and known the heartache of the message not being received – thank you for doing your best!

Not every sheep is ready to be brought home to the Catholic Church. So let’s do our best to find the ones that are. Today’s shepherd left the 99 to find the one. But you, my friends, leave your worries about the ones determined to stray and search for the 1,000 who are willing to come home. Look around you. Who’s missing? One thousand potential members of this church who are among your neighbours, just waiting to be asked!

Showing my workings:

The total population of England & Wales in 2011 was 56.101 million; there were 2882 churches or Mass centres in England & Wales. Assuming an even spread among the general population, each Mass centre serves 19,466 citizens – roughly 20,000.

A 2007 Tearfund survey of Churchgoing in the UK found that 3 million people would go to church ‘if someone invited them’. The original report is no longer available but the Church Times summary suggests this is a result for the whole UK. 

The UK population in 2005 was 60,413,000 – the difference to 2007 will be small so 3 million ‘open’ citizens equates to 5% of the general population.

Now to come up with a ballpark figure. We acknowledge that the years don’t sync, so there will be some error. Secularisation may have hardened attitudes between 2007 and 2019, but some Catholic Mass Centres will have closed. So we can still say that roughly 5% of the general population, or 1,000 citizens, will be open to being invited to each Catholic Church in England & Wales.

Orkney Science Festival Sermon 2019: Words and Pictures

Sermon given at St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, on the occasion of the 2019 Orkney International Science Festival. Readings: Romans 11:33-12:8 and an extract from Richard Feynman’s memoirsIt’s as Simple as 1, 2, 3…

“Nobody knows the thoughts of the Lord God!” says St Paul, and yet he also exhorts us to “serve God with your whole life”. Tricky! Before we tackle that conundrum, let’s begin with a less lofty ambition – to know the mind of another human being.

Earlier in this morning’s service, you were invited to count to 10 in your head. Now you’ve heard a reading from Richard Feynman’s memoirs, you’ll have realised why. How many of you “spoke” to yourself and said “1, 2, 3…” in your imagination? And how many of you used your visual imagination and “watched” the numbers going by? Here’s the amazing thing – we think differently!

In his memoirs, Richard Feynman want on to wonder whether mathematics students had the same experience he did – seeing equations “come to life” with the symbols in different colours – it seems like he experienced a kind of synaesthesia. When I was completing my degree in Physics at Oxford, I never met anybody who reported that, but I did realise that many of my colleagues were intuitive mathematicians. When they looked at an equation, they saw a graph in their heads. When I looked at the same equation, all I saw was a bunch of xs and ys and other symbols. I could still solve the equation, but I did it step-by-step; many of my peers knew roughly what the answer would be because they could ‘see’ it even before they’d applied the rules. By the time I’d finished my PhD I’d realised I’d always be playing “catch-up” with the intuitive mathematicians, and that helped me decide to move out of professional science and into full-time ministry with the church.

One phrase I really hated in my mathematical career was: “It can be shown!” A formula would be handed to the student as a mathematical tool, with the promise that it worked, but the reasons why were too complicated to explain. I never felt really comfortable taking a formula on trust without understanding where it came from. I think Cardinal Newman would have agreed with me. Newman – the 19th Century church scholar who is to be declared a Catholic saint next month – wrote a famous essay called The Grammar of Assent, where he makes a distinction between notional assent and real assent. Notional assent is when I say yes but without a thorough understanding of why I should; real assent is where my ‘yes’ is made in full knowledge of all relevant factors. I daren’t speculate from this pulpit whether that would be useful in politics today!

This is a special year for Cardinal Newman – but also for Albert Einstein. It was exactly 100 ago that an experiment first confirmed Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Einstein had a great visual imagination. His seminal ideas came to him when he imagined what would happen if you were able to race a beam of light or build a whole physics laboratory in a falling elevator. His Special Theory of Relativity explored the question, “What if the Universe had a maximum speed limit – the speed of light?” His General Theory asked “What if gravity was exactly the same as being accelerated through space on a rocket?” Einstein also asked “What if light waves behave like particles when they hit something?” and from that, his contemporaries developed Quantum Mechanics. In the weird mathematics of quantum physics, a particle can tunnel through a barrier which seems too high for it to cross, and a cat linked to a quantum system can be both alive and dead at the same time – as long as you don’t look at the cat to find out! Once you’ve studied physics to degree level, you realise that to understand the Universe, there are times when you have to set aside the common-sense notions which serve us so well in everyday life; things just work differently in the realms of the very small, very fast and very massive.

Our minds are treacherous things. They aren’t wired to understand the Universe as a whole – only those aspects of the universe a human being might meet in daily life. We aren’t all wired the same way, either – we can reach the same results by different methods. And while I was at seminary, I learned another lesson about how what goes on in two people’s heads can be very different.

A Catholic seminary is not just a theological college – it’s also a place of character development, where your whole personality is subject to individual counselling and group therapy. If I hadn’t allowed myself to experience such deep personal scrutiny, I probably wouldn’t have uncovered another way in which I “think differently” from many other human beings. But by the time I was half-way through seminary I’d been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome – I was very slightly on the autistic spectrum. Autism affects different people in different ways, so I can only speak from personal experience about how it affects me, but what I realised was this. There’s something absent in my head which is present in most of yours… a little voice which is constantly saying “What would other people think of me if I did this or if I didn’t do that?”

Science Fiction author Isaac Asimov invented the Three Laws of Robotics. His stories imagine a future world where humanoid robots are commonplace, but for our protection, all robot brains are hard-wired with these Three Laws: First, a robot must neither harm humans nor through inaction, allow humans to be harmed; Second, a robot must obey orders given to it, except when they conflict with the First Law; and Third, a robot should protect its own existence, except to comply with the higher laws. A licensed follow-up novel by Roger Macbride Allen, Caliban, imagined the creation of a robot which wasn’t hard wired with these laws. Would the robot run amok and destroy the human race? No! In Allen’s story, the robot Caliban develops its own code of ethics and comes to love and protect humanity! Perhaps Asimov’s concept of a robot brain constantly hard-wired to check for threats to human beings and its own existence can help a Caliban-like autistic person understand what’s going on in the mind of a typical human being.

Richard Feynman found it incredible that someone could speak while counting, because he couldn’t imagine “thinking in pictures”. His colleague John Tukey found it equally incredible that someone counting would “think in words”. Just imagine if you didn’t have that “What if?” voice constantly interrupting your thoughts… would you find it credible that most of the human race suffers from such a thing if you didn’t know it from personal experience? It would sound totally crazy. But for me, realising that the vast majority of human beings suffer from this was a revelation. Finally I understood why, as a child, my Mum was constantly saying things like “you can’t dress like that, what would other people think of you”? Now I know the right question to ask, I can use my brain to deliberately ask the “What if” question, but I don’t have to if I don’t want to!

St Paul’s letter goes on to remind the Romans that within the community there would be people with different gifts. It’s easy to see that there are different gifts of abilities to teach, counsel or lead. But what’s less obvious is that we’re gifted with the ability to think in different ways. This is both a blessing and a challenge. It’s a blessing because diverse ways of thinking lead to all sorts of creativity, from Einstein’s intuitive leap that gravity was the same as acceleration, to the American academic Temple Grandin whose ability to “think in pictures” has led her to design more humane kinds of livestock handling equipment. But it’s also a challenge to understand each other, when we actually think in fundamentally different ways. Professor Grandin describes “pictures” as her first language. We’re both on the autistic spectrum, but I can’t think in pictures at all!

If your thoughts and instincts are not like mine, that causes complications. One of our basic Christian principles is to ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you’. But when you’re not like me, what I would want done to me – for instance, a friend giving brutally honest feedback rather than trying to avoid hurting my feelings – might be very far from what you would want done to you! Life is a lot more complicated once you realise that most of the human beings around you are guided, in no small part, by their fears about what other people might think of them. Richard Feynman was never formally diagnosed as autistic, but I think it’s significant that he entitled his second volume of autobiography What do you care what other people think?

While the human condition is to worry about the reactions of other people, one question our minds don’t automatically ask is about what God would think of us if we did or didn’t undertake certain actions. This is why Scripture admonishes us in I Cor 2:16 to ‘have the mind of Christ’ and today in Romans 12, to ‘let God completely change the way that you think, so that you live differently’. The Eastern Orthodox approach to Christianity has long emphasised our calling to be ‘divinised’, to be transformed ever more closely into living images of God.

Living like God is not easy. Indeed, it seems impossible in the light of today’s passage; who can know the thoughts of God? Yet, in our limited humanity we do try, not least because God has chosen to communicate his Word to us, and above all through the person of Jesus. It is precisely because we are struggling to know the thoughts of God that there is tension among Christians around questions of war and peace, sexuality and gender identity. We know that the mind of God, in general, is to be loving, inclusive and forgiving – but we also see signs that God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thinking does not always match the spirit of the age in which we live. I don’t intend to take a position in this pulpit, beyond asserting that I am a Roman Catholic and I stand where the Catholic Church stands on issues of diversity; my point today is that followers of Jesus struggling to ‘put on the mind of Christ’ will acknowledge that it’s not easy to know God’s will in this area, and we must have the utmost respect for those whose search to know God’s will leads them to different conclusions. All that is required is that they ‘show their workings’ rather than using the superior mathematician’s declaration of ‘it can be shown’ – otherwise we can never give real assent to what is proposed.

We must all stand on Scripture, as we have received it through the Church, otherwise we fall into the trap exemplified last week by a well-meaning landlady in the American Bible Belt. She tried to dissuade a mixed-race couple from hiring her premises for a wedding, because she had once heard a sermon telling her that interracial marriages were wrong. She issued a hasty retraction after asking her pastor where that was forbidden in the Bible, only to be told that it wasn’t!

The late Stephen Hawking famously said that if we knew what ‘breathes fire into the equations’ of physics, if we could therefore understand why there is something rather than nothing, then we would truly ‘know the mind of God’. I cannot offer you the meaning of the Universe today, but I do offer you my perspective as a follower of Christ with Asperger’s Syndrome. Where the world sees a certain naïvety in a person who is willing to offer unconditional forgiveness and do good to those who won’t repay the favour, God sees a childlike simplicity in such a soul – a simplicity lived out in lives such as St Thérèse of Lisieux, whose mortal remains are travelling through Scotland this very month. Perhaps if we were less burdened by the fear of what other people would think of us, we too would be willing to put God’s Word into practice. It’s not so complicated – in fact, it’s as easy as 1, 2, 3!

I’ll Sing a Hymn to Mary

Homily at 3 Churches, for the Solemnity of the Assumption 2019.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord!”

Our Blessed Mother is, first and foremost, a woman of praise. When the Angel Gabriel asked her to be the mother of the Messiah, she praised God with her actions, which humbly said yes. When she visited with Elizabeth, and was honoured as the “mother of the Lord”, her instinct was neither to reject the honour given her, nor to luxuriate in it, but to give glory to God. So today, I think we must ask ourselves two complementary questions. “How can I give honour to Mary? And how can I give glory to God?”

Pope Francis recently wrote a letter to the world’s priests, and he included these words:

How can we speak about gratitude and encouragement without looking to Mary? She, the woman whose heart was pierced, teaches us the praise capable of lifting our gaze to the future and restoring hope to the present. Her entire life was contained in her song of praise. We too are called to sing that song as a promise of future fulfilment.

Mary’s song is a song in honour of God. Sometimes we sing Mary songs at Sunday Mass – but not too often, and that’s appropriate. What are we doing at Mass? We’re giving thanks to God the Father by offering him the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of his beloved Son. Nothing could please Our Father more – and nothing could please our Blessed Mother more, either. St John XXIII is widely quoted as having said, “The Madonna is not pleased when she is put above her son!”

When we do sing to honour Mary, what do we sing? As I Kneel Before You is an act of entrusting our lives to Mary, that she may present us to God. Hail Mary – Gentle Woman takes the familiar Hail Mary prayer and adds affectionate titles, allowing us to come alongside Elizabeth in calling Mary blessed among all women. There are many verses to Immaculate Mary, Our Hearts are On Firebut most of them express prayers for ourselves and for souls in need, explicitly or implicitly commending these intentions to Mary’s own prayers.

You might be familiar with the Latin Salve Regina which asks Mary to walk with us in times of sorrow and lead us to Jesus. Bring Flowers of the Rarest only really makes sense when we sing it May and place a crown of flowers upon an image of our Blessed Mother. I’ll sing a Hymn To Mary only just manages to do what the first line suggests – it’s much more about declaring who Mary is than about asking her for help (and in this case, help to sing a song about her!)

Whenever we sing to Mary, or pray to her, we are walking a tightrope between going too far and ignoring her. Mary has no power of her own. When we pray to her it’s because we trust her to bring our needs perfectly before the throne of God. When we sing to her, we are seeking to honour her without offering the kind of worship which belongs to God alone. Other Christians might ask why we bother to do this at all, but the answer is in today’s Gospel: “All generations will call me blessed,” says Mary. It’s balanced that every Sunday we worship the Father by offering the Body of Jesus, and once a year we all come together to honour Mary.

Some of us might feel more comfortable entrusting our prayers to Our Lady than to Our Lord or Our Father, and that’s OK – as long as, if we’re in the habit of “asking Mary for things”, we remember that she can only give us what she has received from God. But since God has filled her with the fullness of all grace, what she has to share with us is not inconsiderable! We can also talk to Mary, as a child might talk to its mother, and we can hear Pope Francis again, this time rembering how Our Lady appeared to St Juan Diego at Guadalupe:

Whenever I visit a Marian shrine, I like to spend time looking at the Blessed Mother and letting her look at me. I pray for a childlike trust, the trust of the poor and simple who know that their mother is there, and that they have a place in her heart. And in looking at her, to hear once more, like the Indian Juan Diego: “My youngest son, what is the matter? Do not let it disturb your heart. Am I not here, I who have the honour to be your mother?”

We can also learn much by thinking about Mary as a role model. She was an unmarried mother; a Palestinian refugee in Africa; a confident mother at the Wedding at Cana; a strong woman at the foot of the Cross. Pope Francis reminds us:

To contemplate Mary is “to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness. In her, we see that humility and tenderness are not virtues of the weak but of the strong, who need not treat others poorly in order to feel important themselves”.

But who are the weak and who are the strong? In her Magnificat, Mary sings of a God who casts down the mighty and lifts up the lowly. St Paul once said that God’s power was made perfect in his weakness; when he was weak, then he was strong. God’s ways, Mary’s ways, are not the ways of the world. When we are strong, let us ask Our Blessed Mother for the grace to yield to God. When we are weak, let us ask her to obtain for us what we need. I’ll give the last words to a traditional hymn:

O bless us, dear Lady,
With blessings from heaven,
And to our petitions
Let answer be given.
Ave, Ave, Ave Maria!
Ave, Ave Maria!


The Things We Haven’t Done

Homily at 3 Churches, for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

One morning, at the start of class, a schoolgirl spoke to her teacher.

Please Sir, can I ask you something? Should a person be punished for something they haven’t done?

“Of course not,” replied the teacher, “No-one should be punished for something they haven’t done.”

“That’s good!” said the girl. “Please Sir, I haven’t done my homework!”

Today’s Gospel starts with a lovely picture of Jesus serving his friends. But then St Peter asks “is this for us or for everyone?” He’s probably not expecting what happens next – Jesus paints a surprising picture of how God treats his “servants”. For those who claim to be disciples, a higher standard is expected. The wicked servant who abuses his master’s trust is dismissed – that’s an image of Hell. The lazy servant who did know what the master expected receives many strokes of the lash – that’s an image of Purgatory. More surprisingly, the one who didn’t know what the master expected, but failed to deliver, is punished. Only lightly, but still punished – by the master who represents God!

Does this mean we’re dealing with an unreasonable God who expects results and deals with us unjustly? No. But there are two things we must remember to avoid reading this parable the wrong way.

The first thing is that the servants were servants. They knew they had a Master. So they knew that something was going be expected of them. The fault of the third servant is that he didn’t try to find out what he should have been doing. This is not a parable for people who’ve never heard of Jesus. This is a parable for disciples – members of the Church who claim they want to follow Jesus and serve God Our Father!

The second important thing is that while human beings judge the outward appearance, God judges the heart. We are judged not on our results but on our choices. Let me offer an example: we know that one of the Ten Commandments requires us to keep the Lord’s Day holy. Mother Church takes that and makes an Obligation, saying we must attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, on pain of serious sin. Now, suppose you wake up on Sunday morning and have flu – or find yourself in sole care of a child who is ill in bed. You want to go to Mass. You feel bad about not being able to go to Mass. In these circumstances, is it possible for you to choose to come to Mass? No. So if that happens, please don’t come to confession because you feel bad about not coming to Mass. Confession is about saying “I made a bad choice and next time that happens I’ll make a better choice” – we call that ‘a firm purpose of amendment’. The sign you need to come to confession is that you can put into words what that better choice would have been. If your body has flu, you have no choice. If you have to care for a sick child at home, you have no choice. When you have no choice, what you have are regrets, not sins. So take your sins to confession but take your regrets straight to God in prayer.

At the end of our lives, we will meet Jesus as our judge. We will see clearly what was expected of us. I suspect that what the Bible calls the “punishment” for the servant who didn’t know what was expected will be the firey embarrassment we experience at realising we have let down our beloved Lord in the task he has chosen specially for each one of us. It’s because of this that we have the practice in the church called an “examination of conscience”. This is when we look at ourselves and ask whether we’ve been doing what our master expects. Now it’s easy to make a list of bad behaviour we should avoid – we can tick off a list of “Thou Shalt Nots” to help with that. Today’s Gospel, however, requires something more challenging: an examination of the good deeds which our Master does expect.

Now, none of us can do everything. We can’t all run a Foodbank, visit 50 housebound parishioners every week, take charge of a pack of Scouts, work overtime so a colleague can get home to the kids and spend 8 nights a week at home with our beloved husband or wife. So it’s important to spend time praying about what good deeds God expects each one of us to do. The key is in the gifts and talents God has already entrusted to us – they are given to us to make the world a better place. We will be most effective when we do those things we are called and gifted to do. This is why, following our big diocesan conference in June, our priests and lay leaders in the diocese are examining a process named “Called and Gifted” which could help us do just this. But it would be premature of me to say more before final plans are made.

At this time of year, as we look forward to the “back to school” season, those of us who are parents or grandparents might face a change in mix of caring duties and gaps in our schedule in a typical week. It’s a good time to ask where we can use of our gifts and talents in the year to come.

There is one thing that only we can do – we who worship in the Catholic Church in this place. We are ambassadors for Christ. We can’t expect anyone else promote this parish. It is our calling to invite the people we meet to ask whether they believe Jesus rose from the dead, and whether it’s possible to meet Jesus through Holy Mass. Today’s Second Reading reminds us that Abraham set out to follow God’s call. The First Reading recalls the first Passover, when the faithful Jews were saved from the angel of death. God protects his faithful people, but expects much from his servants – and it’s our business to find out what God wants us to do.

None of us can do everything, but all of us are expected to use the gifts we’ve been given to do something. The Master is calling us. If we want our entry into heaven to be pure joy and free from punishment, the first step is to pray this Dangerous Prayer – “Here I am Lord, use me as you will!” Remember, he doesn’t want to punish you – but you do have to do your homework!

Leaving a Legacy

Homily at 3 Churches, for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Imagine, for a moment, that you have four grown-up daughters.

  • Angela never married, and has spent the last 20 years looking after you in your own home.
  • Bridie married a teacher, but isn’t able to have any children.
  • Christine married a very wealthy businessman, who is like another son to you. They have two children.
  • Deborah defied your wishes and married a man with a criminal record who you thought was totally unsuitable. They have four children.

Now, it’s time to write your will. What do you do? Deborah’s family has the greatest needs: the children are nearly old enough for university. Christine’s children have all the money they need, but if you leave nothing to them, that will look mean. If you leave the house to Angela, there won’t be much money to donate to the rest of the family – but if you sell the house to give a share to each daughter or a share to each grandchild, where will Angela live?

When it comes to questions of inheritance, our Old Testament lesson has nailed it. You, the person who earned the wealth, will one day die, so inevitably what you now have will go to someone who hasn’t earned it. That’s why it’s a big mistake to ask whether an inheritance is fair. Inheritances are always generous. So when you’re on the other side of things – benefitting, or being left out, from someone else’s will – the only real complaint you can make is that the will-maker was not as generous towards you as you hoped. Now I’ll admit that it’s certainly unfair if someone makes you a verbal promise and doesn’t follow up by writing that into their will – but that’s about breaking their word, which is a different moral issue altogether.

In the twelve years I’ve been a priest, I’ve had innumerable conversations with parishioners whose lives have been ruined by disputes about inheritance. They have expected to receive a certain amount in a will, but either they were left less than they hoped for, or another family member failed to hand over what they ought to have done, or in the absence of written instructions, the person didn’t inherit what they believed they were entitled to.

Now I’m the first to recognise that when you expect to inherit something, it’s easy to daydream. My parents own a house, and when the time comes, its value will probably be split between my brother and myself. Since I don’t have a mortgage, I can imagine paying for a round-the-world holiday, or buying a brand-new car, or sponsoring some expensive charitable project. Yet maybe that won’t happen. Maybe between now and then, the house will have to be sold to pay for care home fees – or a survey might find an old mineshaft under its foundations and make it worthless. So I can dream, but I would be foolish to plan a future based on something I might never receive.

Even Jesus was reluctant to get involved in a property dispute. “Who appointed me your judge?” he asks. In fact, one day Jesus will judge us, because the God He calls Father has appointed him judge over all humanity. But he will judge us on the quality of our generous giving and our goodwill in receiving what is always a pure gift.

Are you angry with a deceased relative for not including you in their will? Let it go. It was never your money in the first place. Pray for their soul!

Are you angry with a living relative for not sharing a portion of their inheritance with you? Let it go. They have had their reward already. Pray for their conversion!

Are you angry because the executor of a will is being slow to give you your inheritance? Let it go. God will allow your portion to come to you at a time when you’ll need it. Love and bless your adversary!

There again, perhaps you’re arguing with other family members because you’ve benefitted the most from someone else’s will. If so, you’ve received an undeserved gift. How much of that gift will you share with your extended family? The Lord who said “Freely you have received, freely give” is also warning you that no amount of money will give you security – the Christian paradox is that only through giving can we truly receive what we need.

Today is also a good day to ask yourself: Have I made a will? If so, does it need to be updated?

Wills are important. It’s only by making a will that you can ensure that your property is used in the way you wish after your death. You don’t need to use a lawyer to write your will, but it’s probably a good idea to do so if there’s a house or land involved. The cheapest way to access a lawyer is to wait until November and find one who is part of the WillAid initiative – instead of paying a legal fee, you make a donation* to one of nine nominated charities. There are two Catholic charities in the mix – the Scottish and Irish counterparts of CAFOD.

If you’re making or updating a will, you might consider leaving a legacy to the Catholic Church. Because the parishes of “3 Churches” are part of a wider charity, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cardiff Trust, it’s important to use the right wording. Saying “I leave the money to the Catholic Church” is too vague, and saying “I leave it to Parish X” is a problem because Parish X isn’t a charity on its own. The Treasurer’s Office can advise you of the right wording, if you need it.

There is no one right answer to the puzzle I set at the start of this sermon, because there are different definitions of “fair”. Is it fair to split everything 4 ways among the daughters? Is it fair to give a double-share to Christine and a quadruple-share to Deborah because of the number of grandchildren?* It would certainly seem unfair to make Angela homeless, but there are ways of leaving property “in trust” so its value can be shared out later. One thing which is clearly unfair is not updating a will when the circumstances it was based on have changed. Our Lord is not going to apportion your will, but he will judge you on the thoughtfulness and generosity with which you settle your affairs. The next step is up to you!

In one of the Cardiff churches where I preached this sermon, a Cardiff solicitor in the congregation pointed out afterwards that English Law would by default assume equal shares to each daughter but takes no account of grandchildren because “they are the children’s responsibility”; his practical experience suggests that leaving grandchildren more than a token amount tends to cause conflict. I hasten to add that nothing in this blog should be taken as formal legal advice! The same lawyer also noted that although there are “suggested donations” associated with WillAid you are not actually obliged to pay a penny to benefit from the service.

Testing Times

Homily at Cardiff’s “3 Churches” for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

About once year I have a recurring anxiety dream. I’m back in seminary – priest training college – sitting my exams. Then I wake up and realise – phew – I’ve already been ordained, and it’s OK, I’ve passed the test to become a priest.

Few of us like being put to the test. But tests are important. Just this week one friend of mine passed her basic training to ride a motorcycle on a public road, and another, who is Spanish, passed his English Literacy test to work in a British school. I don’t think any of us would want our children taught by someone who doesn’t speak English well, and still less to encounter an untested rider on the highway. Tests force us to focus and to perform better.

In today’s Gospel, we hear Our Lord teaching us a very familiar prayer, but in unfamiliar language. Both St Luke – whose words we heard today – and St Matthew, recall how the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Luke gives us a shorter version, but both Gospels, after asking forgiveness, say “do not put us to the test”. At least, that’s what they say in the English text of the Bible we use for our Mass readings.*

What did Jesus actually say to his disciples? Most likely he taught them in Aramaic, the later version of Hebrew spoken in Roman times. But the Gospels got written in Greek, and we have identical words in the earliest copies of Matthew and Luke. Three hundred years later, when the offical Latin Bible was written, those words were translated again, as “ne nos inducas in tentationem” – and if you know the Lord’s Prayer, or Pater Noster, in Latin, those words will still sound familiar today. Translations of the Bible as far back as the 14th century borrowed one of those Latin words into English as “temptation”.

Today, whenever we use the word “temptation”, it always has the sense of inviting someone to break a rule, do something unhealthy or commit a sin. You can even get a box of chocolates called Temptations! But that’s because the word has become more specialised over the centuries. The Latin word, and “temptation” when it first became an English word, could mean any kind of trial or test – a test of ability, a test of strength, or a test of moral character. Indeed, almost any kind of test will reveal something about our virtues and vices!

“Pray not to be put to the test.” When Jesus took Peter, James and John to the Garden of Gethsemane, he spoke to them in very similar words. Then they were both tested and tempted. Our Lord was arrested. Would they use violence? Jesus had to tell Peter to put away his sword. Would they deny following Jesus? Three times, before the cock crew, Simon Peter had sworn “I do not know the man!” Most of the apostles fled Calvary, leaving only Our Lady and St John the Beloved at the foot of the cross. Would they believe his prophecies that he would rise from the dead? The joyful words of St Mary Magdalen were scorned at first before the Risen Lord confirmed the truth to his sorely tested disciples.

So when you pray, ask your Father in heaven… well, what exactly? Are we asking Him not to tempt us to sin? Or not to test us in ways where our own weaknesses, with or without help from the Devil, are likely to lead us to sin? At the end of 2017, Pope Francis gave a media interview where he stressed that it is not God, but the Enemy, who tempts us to do evil. Since then, you may have seen irate internet posts from Protestant leaders attacking the Pope for “changing the words of Jesus”.

Of course the Pope isn’t seeking to change anything Our Lord said – he’s only asking how we can best express that in our own everyday language. The Bible text we read at Mass is from a 20th Century translation. “Do not put us to the test” is the best way to put Our Lord’s words into modern English. But when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we aren’t praying in modern English, we’re praying in words that have been largely unchanged for centuries. People don’t like being asked to unlearn old familiar prayers – I’m sure we didn’t when the Missal was updated a decade ago – and “lead us not into temptation” are some of the best known words in the English language.

If we turn to another part of the Bible, the Letter of St James, we read that “God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does God tempt anyone.” But God certainly does test his faithful people. In today’s first reading, God has sent angels to warn Abraham about the destruction of Sodom. Abraham passes this test by asking God to have mercy even if there are 10 good souls in the town – but there aren’t. The whole of the Bible is about God testing human beings. Will Adam and Eve touch the forbidden tree? Will Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac? Will Moses tell Pharaoh “Let God’s people go?” Will Jonah prophesy to Nineveh? Will Mary say yes to Gabriel? Will Jesus flee from the Garden of Gethsemane? Will you and I use the talents God has entrusted to us to help needy people and grow God’s church?

St Paul tells us clearly that at the end our lives, our works will be tested. He also consoles us by assuring us that God will not test us more than we can bear, and that God will cause all things to work out for good for those who love Jesus. So we are left with this mystery. Our Father in heaven will test us, but also calls us to “pray not to be put to the test”. In our age we may be tested by being required to produce a DBS certificate to prove our good character, or asked to defend something Pope Francis has said. So pray not to be put to the test. But when you are tested – and you will be – pray for God to help you to pass the test with integrity. If you should fail, remember the Lord’s Prayer includes a petition for forgiveness, too!

* Generally on this blog I link to the United States lectionary for the full readings because it provides a stable link that still works years later. However, the translation there this week says “Do not subject us to the final test!” (Luke 11:4 NAB and Matthew 6:13 NAB.) For other in-blog Bible references I tend to use Oremus NRSV Anglicised which offers “Do not bring us to the time of trial!” (Luke 11:4 NRSV-A and Matthew 6:13 NRSV-A). The Lectionary used by most British Catholic Churches uses the Jerusalem Bible (not to be confused with the New Jerusalem Bible) which renders this passage as “Do not put us to the test”.

Further reflections: In the length of a sermon, there is no time to ponder the other part of Our Lord’s phrasing, “ne inducas”, “do not induce / draw towards us / draw us towards” temptation. Part of the controversy about Pope Francis’ comments in 2017 is around his choice of “do not allow us to fall into temptation”, which reflects the common usage he is familiar with in Spanish – “no nos dejes caer en la tentacion”. The Pope’s favoured words imply “Dear God, please make an intervention here to prevent me being tested, or to prevent me failing if I am tested.” Our traditional language implies “Dear God, if you were planning on leading me into a situation where I will be tempted, please change your mind.” Behind this is a complex question of how exactly God intervenes in the day-to-day workings of the world. God permits human beings the freedom to choose sinfully, so everything which occurs is according to the “permissive will of God”. Should God work a miracle or communicate a desire clearly to a particular person, these would be very specific enactments of God’s active will. But what exactly am I expecting God to do, within my mind or in the wider world, to make me less likely to be tested or tempted today? I don’t know – but I do know Jesus felt it was important that I ask this of my Father every day!

One Small Step

Homily for the Closing Mass of the Harrytown School Sion Community Mission – readings Colossians 3:12-17 & Matthew 11:25-30

A year before I was born, the last human being to walk upon the moon – Gene Cernan, who happened to be a Catholic – returned to Planet Earth.

My childhood was the era of the Space Shuttle – the first launch of Columbia when I was 8, and the fatal explosion of Challenger when I was 13. The equally tragic loss of Columbia happened when I was 30. And the last shuttle flight – some of you might be just old enough to remember – took place in 2011. Space Shuttles flew for two thirds of my lifetime.

We now live in a new age of space exploration. Commercial companies are about to fly humans in space. Most of us in this room will live to see the first woman to walk on the moon – and the first human beyond earth orbit who is not a white American. China might land a woman – or a man – on the moon before the Americans manage to go there again. Many of us might live to see a human being set foot on Mars.

Isn’t it exciting, to live to see humans travel in the heavens? It’s not impossible that someone in this room today could become an astronaut. It’s even more possible that some of us could work on the science or technology which makes this possible. But ALL of us are invited to an adventure much greater than exploring the heavens – each one of us is invited by Jesus to go to Heaven. But just as none of us have a guaranteed ride into space, so none of us can take it for granted that we’ll go to heaven either. Listen to what Jesus says: COME TO ME – not ‘stay where you are’ – and I will give you rest.

Now what Jesus says is partly about the Eternal Rest he can give us when our life on earth ends, but is also about the comfort he can give us while our life on earth continues. But what he’s definitely NOT talking about is the kind of rest that happens at the end of a Big Project.

The Moon landings and the Space Shuttle were Big Projects. For a few years, thousands of young American science and technology graduates, still in their 20s, made the Moon landings happen. Then the rocket facilities were closed and they moved on to other things. Similarly, the Space Shuttle launch facilities have now been refurbished for the commercial spaceflight companies.

Sports, too, are a big project. For a few weeks, young athletes pour all their energy into preparing for Wimbledon or the Cricket World Cup. Then, win or lose, they get to take a breather before training for the next round of competitions.

What about Harrytown School? Here there are also Big Projects followed by seasons to recover. We’re about to enjoy the longest break of the school year. Those of you in Year 10 are half-way through the 2-year cycle which ends with your GCSE results.

When Jesus says, “Come to me and I will give you rest,” he’s not talking about this kind of breather. No! He has something else in mind! He talks about an easy yoke and a light burden. That’s not the same thing as taking a holiday! A ‘yoke’ was used to connect two animals – oxen, similar to cows – so they could walk alongside each other and pull a cart or plough a field. An ‘easy’ yoke was one that was carved out to match the shape of the ox’s shoulders so it fitted comfortably. And who are we to be yoked alongside? Jesus himself!

This week, some of us have taken part in team games where we realised that for a team of people to succeed, we need to have someone in charge. Neil Armstrong would never have placed his boot on the moon’ surface without a well-structured team of section leaders and an overall commander making it all happen. If you want to build a new rocket design out of old parts, it’s not enough to bolt them together; you have to test out how the whole system works together and fine-tune the joins. In the same way, Jesus wants to guide us to know peace.

St Paul writes to the Colossians about the peace they can only know by letting Christ reign in their hearts. We all have restless hearts which want to do things our own way – but we can only know the peace Christ brings, the easy yoke he offers, by choosing to live our lives HIS way.

I fell in love with astronomy when I was 7 years old. I said the first serious prayer of my life when I was 11 – ‘Jesus, if you are real, show me.’ He did – and each member of the Sion Community mission team could tell you a similar story. This week we’ve tried to share with you something of our faith: that God really is a loving and forgiving Father in heaven; that Jesus really did die on the Cross, to open the door so that each one of you can go to Heaven if you choose to follow him; that if you ask the Holy Spirit to come into your life, you really will experience joy, peace, patience, trust, understanding and self-control. We believe this matters, because we’ve each experienced it in our own lives.

When I was close to the end of my physics degree, I knew I had to ask Jesus a question. But I was afraid to do it. “What do you want me to do with the rest of my life?” I was afraid he might ask me to do the priest thing. I don’t know why I was so unwilling – but something in me was afraid of saying yes to God. But then, one day during an event rather like this Mission, I sat down and asked myself: do I believe God loves me? Yes – so he won’t ask me to do anything bad for me. Do I believe God is smarter than me? Yes – so he knows the right answer. And do I call him ‘Lord’? I do – but I can only really do that if I am willing to follow ALL his instructions. So I surrendered. “Show me what you want me to do next, Lord, and I’ll do it – even if it is the priest thing.”

You know what? It wasn’t the priest thing – not straight away. Jesus guided me to work for the Church for a gap year in Nottingham, then to go to Cardiff where I spent 4 years studying dust falling into black holes. Only after that, when I once again went to prayer and asked the “What now?” question, was I guided to start training to be a priest.

Jesus had a plan for my life – and he has a plan for each of your lives. Some of you already know what it is – because there is a dream in your heart that Jesus put there. Others will discover it as your life unfolds. But you know what? You can get there the easy way or the hard way. The easy way is to walk alongside Jesus, following his values. Be gentle. Always make up after a fight. And trust God’s plan. If you want to go to heaven, don’t wait until you die to go to Jesus – draw close to him during your life on earth.

A year before I was born, the last human being to walk upon the moon returned to Planet Earth. Two-thousand years before I was born, Jesus Christ returned from death, and ascended to sit at God’s right hand. I doubt I will ever follow Neil Armstrong into space, but I am sure I will be following Jesus Christ into heaven. I hope you’re choosing to come too!

There’s one more piece of advice St Paul gives, and it’s a bit strange. He says always to give thanks to God – and to do it with a song. You’ll have heard some songs this week from the mission team – we sing because we know God has given us many gifts, especially the gift of Jesus walking alongside us, carrying our worries with us, sharing his easy yoke with us. So don’t be afraid to sing – or if you don’t like your singing voice, find another way to say ‘Thank You’ to God. In fact, the very best way to say ‘thanks’ to God was the way Jesus taught his apostles – by being part of Mass. The biggest ‘thank you’ gift we can offer to our Father in Heaven is Jesus dying on the Cross, who comes to us in every Mass!

So as this school year ends, I would like to set you a one-year challenge. Don’t worry, it’s not as ambitious as landing a man on the moon! But it’s this: If you don’t go to Mass at all, try going once a month – and when you go, think of the good things which happened that month to offer as a thanksgiving. If you already go to Mass sometimes, try going every Sunday, dedicating it as a thank-you for the past week. And if you already go every Sunday, then each day at bedtime count your blessings and say ‘thank you’ to God for the good things which happened that day. I challenge you to discover whether a year of thanking God makes your life go better than a year without. And if you’re feeling really brave, you can sing out loud, too!