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!

 

Raised up by Obedience and Sacrifice

Homily at the daily English language Mass at Fatima

Wives, obey your husbands!

It would be hard to find a more controversial passage in the Bible than the one we’ve just heard. And yet it comes from one of the Letters in the New Testament which we believe are inspired by the Holy Spirit… we acclaimed it as ‘The Word of the Lord’ and said ‘thanks be to God!’

What is God really saying to us today? Let’s put aside any strong feelings stirred up by this challenge, and look deeply into the Scriptures.

‘Wives should obey their husbands as much as the Church obeys Christ.’

Ah… maybe that’s less of challenge that it first seems. How does the Church obey Christ? Badly!

The Church on earth is made entirely of sinners! We are the dough, into which a woman has thrown yeast, to raise us up to holiness! That wise woman represents Mother Church, who ‘raises’ us with her sacraments. Baptism takes the fallen children of Adam and makes of us adopted sons and daughters of God! The Sacrament of Reconciliation raises us up when we fall into sin – if you haven’t yet been to confession during your time in Fatima, I urge you to go! The Eucharist is the life for our souls, and Holy Communion itself has the power to forgive our smaller sins.

That woman also represents the Blessed Mother, who comes to raise us up with her gifts. She offers us the daily rosary, in which we store up prayers for our own hour of death. She offers us the ‘O My Jesus’ prayer, by which we can plead for the salvation of sinners. She offers us her sorrowful and immaculate heart, which we can console by meditating on the mysteries of the rosary, especially on the First Saturday of each month. These are requests, not divine commands which we would sin to disobey – but because we’re here in Fatima, our hearts already sense that this is what our Blessed Mother is asking of us.

But back to St Paul’s letter! Wives are only to imitate the Church, though ideally this means they should ‘submit to their husbands in everything’. Does this mean their husbands can lord it over them? No, husbands are challenged to ‘be the Lord’ for them – imitating the Lord Jesus who sacrificed himself and gave up his very life for the sake of the one he loved!

By entering holy matrimony, a Christian husband and a Christian wife freely choose not only to found a family, but to play out a sacred drama, a life-long sacrament, where the husband must be an image of Christ who died for our sins, and the wife an image of the Church who nurtures all the faithful. There will times a wife must obey her husband, for the common good; there will be times the husband must sacrifice his desire to get his own way for the sake of his wife. No human being can play these roles to perfection; but Jesus does not ask us to achieve perfection. No, he asks for our good will to do what we can, with his help, and the humility to repent and try again when we fail.

By baptism, we all, men and women, married and single, become members of the Body of Christ. We all share in the work of Christ the High Priest. Indeed, there is no action more priestly, for a lay person, than to pray the ‘O My Jesus’ prayer, and to offer the prayer taught by the Angel of Fatima, asking pardon for those who do not believe, do not adore, do not trust and do not love our God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We may feel that our efforts are puny, that our failures are greater than our faithfulness. But every moment we live the values to which Christ has called us, is a mustard seed moment. If you do what you can, Christ will do what Christ can, and though what you can do may be as small as a mustard seed or a grain of yeast, it is enough. Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus, for ever and ever. Amen.

Ad Astra per Nuptia

Wedding homily – for Sebastian Frysol & Jennifer Cavill

Jennifer, Sebastian, you have invited your family and your friends to this place today because you wish to make a public pledge to spend the future together. You could have chosen to simply live together, or to go through a civil ceremony. But we are here in church. Jennifer, I have known you through our connection to the Catholic Church for more than 10 years. Sebastian, it has been my privilege to come to know you, through Jennifer, during the last year. Together, you have chosen certain texts for today; let me reflect back to you what you have chosen.

“Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” These words challenge us to cast our minds to the heavens, and not to be constrained by worldly values. As I look to the stars, it strikes me that by getting married, you are forming your own Federation. A Federation is marked by a set of values its members agree to live by. The values of your Federation are rooted in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

“Honour one another above yourself.” In the best adventure movies, no-one is left behind; or if someone must make the ultimate sacrifice, they do it for the team. In your Federation, the needs of the Many – or at least of the Other – outweigh the needs of the one. There will be days when each of you will need to offer your bodies – your tiredness, or your need to get your own way – for the sake of each other. This is the pledge you make today. When the adventure movie is a science fiction movie, it sometimes turns out that the ultimate sacrifice is not so final after all. I cannot offer you a resurrection machine – but I can offer you a divine promise. When two baptised Christians marry, their marriage bond is a sacrament, a promise of God’s ongoing help. The same divine power which raised Jesus Christ from the dead is on offer to you when you call to God for assistance.

“Help those in need… be kind not because people deserve it” but because God loves them. Your resources are finite, but God does expect that, as individuals and as a couple, when you come across people in need you will offer them something of your own time and resources as an act of love.

“Pray.” In one simple word, St Paul reminds you that you are called to communicate and connect with your Creator. The Bible is an epic about God’s love for us, and our invitation to return love for love. You show love to God by choosing to hold your wedding in church, by worshipping in public and in private, and by praying for one another.

“Live in harmony with one another.” Ever since the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still came out in 1951, it’s been a cliché that an explorer lands upon another planet and says “We come in peace.” Jennifer, Sebastian, although you have known each other for a long time, each of you is still an alien world not fully explored by the other, a living world which will grow and change. So whether the earth stands still, or moves, for you – come in peace, and be prepared to learn about each other anew.

Maybe you well tell each other than you love each other “to the moon and back”… as you pass the moon, you will notice that Apollo 11 bore a plaque saying “We came in peace for all mankind.” Your charge to live in harmony is not only with each other, but with those who are already members of your family, and those who will be part of your family in the years to come – “strange new worlds” for you to explore.

What might be the Prime Directive for your Federation? In the Star Trek universe, the Prime Directive is not to interfere in another culture, or in simple language, to live and let live. In my years of ministry as a priest, I have seen that some of the greatest unhappiness in families comes from unfulfilled expectations: one family member expected that another would visit a certain event, leave them some money, or take their side in an argument, without first receiving a promise that that person would do so. So I urge that in your Federation, to be part of a family is to honour and respect the choices made by other members, even when you don’t agree.

To Jennifer and Sebastian, I say this: by your vows today, you are making a strong promise to support and understand one another, and to respect the different views and actions of the families you now marry into. The Hebrew Bible contains a divine promise, that if you keep the commandment to honour your parents, you will live long and prosper. To the other guests here present, I say this: Today, some of you will become family to each other for the first time. Some of you are even meeting for the first time. Honour and respect one another, but expect nothing of each other other than what is freely offered as a gift.

Sebastian, Jennifer, you now pledge yourself to an ongoing mission, please God closer to 50 years than to 5, an enterprise which is a voyage of discovery. Together you will travel into that undiscovered country we call the future. Go boldly. And if you are ready to forge this new Federation, come forward now.

This homily was inspired equally by St Paul’s Letter to the Romans (12:1-2 & 9-18) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture – described by Jennifer as “A movie all about love, even though it never uses the word.”

For the Children

Homily for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Paul’s.

“I’m very sorry. I shouldn’t be standing up here talking to you. There are other people much more capable. In fact, I’m not sure why they ever picked me for this job…”

Don’t worry. I haven’t gone mad. I’m just trying to give you a flavour of what’s going on in the head of a person suffering from chronic anxiety or what the psychologists call “impostor syndrome”.

Lots of famous people suffer from just these kind of feelings. TV presenter and model Alexa Chung recently told the BBC that she did. Although she’d been commissioned to write for Vogue fashion magazine, she couldn’t shake off the feeling that she was about to be “found out” as a fraud.

This week, Claire Foy – who played the young Queen Elizabeth in Netflix’s The Crown admitted to similar feelings of anxiety.

Have you ever felt underqualified for the tasks you have to take on regularly? It’s a very common reaction. Sometimes we have a false sense of Christian modesty, that we shouldn’t receive compliments at all. But Jesus said the “truth would set us free” and there are times we need to learn to accept the praise given to us.  Not long ago I met a member from a Christian community which had a rule about accepting compliments – when someone praised you, you were only allowed to give one of three answers. “Amen!” – “Praise God” – or “I receive that!”

Picture those 70 elders invited to go up the mountain with Moses. This story from the Hebrew Bible comes after Moses has spent some time alone with God in the mists atop a mountain… in fact someone on Facebook pointed out to me that Moses was the very first person to download information to a tablet from a cloud! But now the invitation comes down to the camp – the same God who has been speaking face-to-face with Moses now wants to speak directly to the elders of the people – they were to meet with God too! I wonder how many of them felt they had been wrongly picked for this privilege? But if God chose to show himself to them… that puts things in a new light. Does God make mistakes about things like that?

At first sight, the 12 apostles had no trouble accepting their exalted position. Last Sunday, we heard them arguing about who was the greatest! This week, they’re trying to stop someone who’s not a member of the inner circle from doing God’s work. But I wonder, deep down, were they motivated by pride in being the “chosen ones” – or were they, too, insecure about being chosen, and trying to keep rivals at arm’s length?

It’s very easy to find reasons to not do things for the parish we belong to.

Perhaps we feel unworthy.

Perhaps we expect a put-down from others in positions of authority.

Perhaps we’re afraid of criticism or that the work will go horribly wrong.

Or perhaps we’re afraid of being sucked in to a place where we can’t say no.

These fears are real. But God is love, and perfect love casts out all fear.

Jesus made it clear time and time again that God has high expectations of us. The steward entrusted with talents is expected to return with a profit. The “sheep” who do good receive a reward in heaven; the goats, who do nothing, are sent to eternal damnation.

He told parables about a master returning to check on the state of his vineyard, or a servant who only received a small punishment because he didn’t understand what his master expected of him. Among all the false fears we face, there is only one real fear we should cling on to – that at the end of our life we will meet God, and have to explain why we didn’t use our gifts to bless God’s people.

And what exactly does God expect us to do? Love our enemy – be willing to forgive. Love our neighbour – help the people whose needs are most obvious to us. Love God with all our heart – giving time to personal prayer and church services. But also – “Go into the world, teach them to obey everything I taught you,” says Jesus. Today he is teaching us that many volunteers are needed, and we should not be put off by the objections of others or a false sense of our own shortcomings.

Successful churches ask people to build on their strengths. Maybe at school you were told to focus on things you did badly, to get better – or at least less bad. But when we are older, we have a good sense of our true strengths and weaknesses. I’ve got news for you – whatever your strengths are, God gave them to you so you could bless the Church and help other people.

So ask yourself: What gifts have I been given? What’s stopping me from using them here?

Today, Christ warns us not to be an obstacle to children who have faith. It’s easy to blame flawed bishops and abusive priests for setting an appalling example, and yes, each church leader will one day answer to Christ for the choices they have made. But who are the greater obstacles to our young people? Prelates in faraway place they will never meet? Or those of us here today who allow doubts and fears to stop us from offering to serve our young people? If we don’t give our children the experience of church which will best help them grow in faith, what thanks can we expect from God?

In every parish, there is a great need for volunteers to work with children – First Communion, Confirmation and Children’s Liturgy of the Word. For all the reasons I’ve talked about this morning, we might be hesitant to volunteer. But if we allow our fears to defeat us before we begin, we will never become the Church God is calling us to be.

Now is the time. God can take your small offering and do great things with it. And remember – professionals built the Titanic, but Noah’s Ark was built by an amateur!

Unbound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whose knock do you hear?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you are suffering from guilt?

Rush to the confessional.  Plead guilty.

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

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

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

It’s time to open the door. Come.

Faith is when you trust your Father

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a picture of God, Mummy!”

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

“They will when I’ve finished!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fruitful Missionary Discipleship

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

Parish Structures

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

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

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

Evangelising Individuals

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

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

Other Resources

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

Some additional books you might read!

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