D Day

Homily at the Sion Community D-Weekend for Pentecost Sunday, 2019.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? They would need to be brave and courageous…

This week, many nations have been remembering the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. “D” stood for Decision – the Decision to send a mighty army through the beaches of France to overthrow the Nazi evil which had overtaken the heart of Europe. Most of the warriors who took part were young people – some hiding their true age so they could fight, though not yet deemed ‘adults’. Not only men died that day – women among the nursing corps also lost their lives. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to do it – the moral case to oppose the Nazis was overwhelming.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – within a month, a million allied warriors had landed in Normandy.
  3. They received signs of encouragement, from the words of Winston Churchill to the outrageous leadership of a bagpiper!

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal…

On the Day of Pentecost around AD 33, a group of young people were waiting in an Upper Room, the same room where Jesus had celebrated the Last Supper. It’s probable that the fishermen called by Jesus – Peter, Andrew, James and John – were in their twenties or possibly even teenagers. In today’s Gospel, we heard how Jesus appeared to them on Easter Sunday, wished them peace, and commanded them to receive the Holy Spirit. St Luke tells us how, 40 days after Easter, Jesus said goodbye – he would no longer be appearing regularly to his chosen followers – but told them to wait in Jersualem until they received power from God. In our first reading, from Acts, we learn that after 9 days of continuous prayer, the promised power came in the form of a mighty wind and tongues of fire. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young disciples knew they HAD to do it – Jesus their master had given them a command.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – not only the eleven apostles chosen by Jesus, but Mary and the other women who supported them, and very soon, the hundreds who responded and became baptised.
  3. They received signs of encouragement, because God’s power brought healings and words which touched lives.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? They would need to be brave and courageous…

Joshua’s army had been given its instructions. For seven days they were to march around Jericho; on the seventh day they should march seven times with the Ark of God’s Presence and then have their priests blow trumpets. No doubt the warriors and bearers of the Ark would have been young people. Joshua wasn’t so young any more, but God had chosen him because when he was a young man, sent to spy in the Promised Land, he had told Moses that although the land was full of formidable enemies, it would be easy to conquer with God’s help. Where most of the spies saw human problems, Joshua saw God’s solutions. Since then, he’d had to wait 40 years to see the children of Israel enter the Promised Land. But now it was time. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to do it – God’s power had led them to this moment.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – they were twelve tribes.
  3. They received signs of encouragement: Joshua had seen God’s power part the Egyptian Sea and the Jordan River, provide manna from heaven, and speak to Moses face-to-face.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal…

On the Day of Pentecost in 2019, a group of young people were gathered in Brentwood. They had heard a message that “life with God is life in colour”. Some of them had personally experienced God touch their lives, with a deep peace that no human being can give. A few of them had even experienced what the Apostles had also known following the first Pentecost – they had prayed in tongues, received words of prophecy from God. But others among them doubted. And many wondered what their mission was to be.

For Joshua and for the D-Day troops, they had clear missions ahead of them. Joshua was to capture the city of Jericho and secure the Promised Land. The warriors of D-Day were to repel the Nazi troops and restore freedom to the nations of Europe. For the young people at the first Pentecost, their mission briefing was more general – they were to invite everyone in the world to become a follower of Jesus Christ – to become a Disciple.

Now what must you do to be a Disciple? We read in the same chapter of Acts that those who said “Yes” on the Day of Pentecost did four things. They were faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to meeting together to support one another, to Holy Communion and to prayer.

If you want to know the Teaching of the Apostles, you will need to read the whole New Testament of the Bible. But I can sum it up for you briefly. Deal with your anger and live in peace with one another. Protect and cherish human life from conception to natural death. Forgive everyone, even before they ask. Never sleep with another person until you are part of a marriage blessed by God. And never, ever, say something is a rule while doing the opposite.

This teaching will stir up questions in your hearts. Part of what Jesus taught is quite acceptable to the world around us. Who can argue with helping people in need and keeping our promises? But other things will be out of step with today’s world. Some of you will be thinking “Yes! It feels right to go to Mass on Sunday, protect human life in the womb, and wait until marriage, but I don’t quite understand why.” Ask the questions! It’s OK to want to know more, and a good place to start is a book called YouCat.

Others among you will feel angry at some of these ideas. Can’t the old-fashioned Catholic Church get with the times? Well, no, we can’t. Our job is to do what we’ve done for 2000 years, to pass on the teaching of Jesus – and Jesus doesn’t change his mind. But if you’re angry, good! Talk about it with someone. Maybe it’s because following Jesus means you’ll have to disagree with some members of your family or close friends. That’s why Jesus wants to fill us with His Holy Spirit, to be brave and courageous. But if you’re like the milkshake with the film on top*, you’re not going to be an awesome milkshake…

Maybe all of this feels too much for you. You can see that other people on the D-Weekend have had a good time or enjoy the singing and praying. So I say to you: don’t feel pressured into doing anything you don’t want to do. But do ask some basic questions. Do you believe that something dramatic happened on that first Day of Pentecost? That people who knew Jesus received power to heal people and change lives for the better? That Jesus, uniquely among religious leaders, rose from the dead? And do these questions matter?

On the Day of Pentecost in 2019, a group of young people were gathered in Brentwood. They had heard a message that “life with God is life in colour”. Some of them had personally experienced God touch their lives, with a deep peace that no human being can give. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to take the next step – God was real, and was inviting them.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – they were four tribes, able to keep in touch through Sion Community and through social media.
  3. They received signs of encouragement: some of the young people had spoken publicly about how God had touched their lives.

God had a purpose for each of these young people. They couldn’t go until they got the signal – and God will give that in different ways, to do different tasks, when each young person is ready. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? It was D-Day. Decision Day. Disciple Day. They would need to be brave and courageous… but like Joshua, like the Apostles, if they made the right decision, God’s Holy Spirit would be with them. I wonder what decision they are going to make?

*During the weekend, an illustration was used with three glasses of milk. Film on top (no baptism – no openness to the Holy Spirit) – no milkshake. Powder in but not stirred? (Just baptised and confirmed, not interested.) Lumpy milkshake. Powder in and stirred (stir up the gifts of the Spirit given to you) – awesome milkshake.

Photo credits: D-DayPentecostJoshua.

The Mass of Glory

Sermon at the Sion Community Chapel for members of the Catholic Parishes of Burnham-on-Crouch and Maldon on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year C.

What would God look like if you could see Him?

There’s a story about a little girl who was working very intently, drawing a picture.

Mum came up and said, “What’s that, darling?”

“It’s a picture of God!”

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

“They will when I’ve finished!”

I can’t help wondering what it will be like when we reach the new Jerusalem we see glimpsed in today’s Second Reading. Most members of the church have a sense that when we die, our souls go to be with God. But fewer of us grasp that for those who follow Jesus and have their sins forgiven, our final destiny is not to be disembodied souls floating in heaven, but raised up to everlasting bodies on the New Earth, that glorious Jerusalem where God lives among human beings. This morning we’ve been asking “How can I make the most of the rest of my life?” – but that’s just the curtain-raiser. How can we have the best possible experience of eternity? What I do know is if we live our life on Earth God’s way, the best is yet to come!

And I do wonder… What will it be like, when God Himself lives among us?

The Bible tells us that God is light; in God there is no darkness at all.

As a scientist, I can tell you that light is one of the purest forms of energy. It has a colour, a brightness and a direction of travel* – and that’s all there is to it!

I once saw a picture of two girls standing on a wet beach – their reflection was visible on the glistening sand, and they also cast a shadow. It struck me that this could be an image of God as Trinity – but I hesitated. I didn’t want to liken the Holy Spirit to a shadow. Then I realised – God was the surrounding light! The ‘original’ form of the girls I could see because light was reflecting off them. The ‘reflection’ I could see because this light was mirrored by the material world, just as Jesus is the human face of God. And what is a shadow if not a shape formed by light, except in that place where the light is not?

In Christian art, we show that a person is holy by surrounding their head with a halo of light. We have good reason for doing this. Moses was said to wear a veil because his face shone with the unbearable glory of God. Jesus himself showed his glory by literally glowing on the mountain of Transfiguration. It’s not unknown for saints through the ages to appear radiant on special occasions.

But today’s Gospel is pointing to something else. It says Jesus and His Father HAVE been glorified and they WILL be glorified. The recent glory is that Judas has betrayed Jesus, and this will be proven with a kiss. The coming glory is twofold: Jesus will die on the Cross and rise to everlasting life. Now, we can understand the Resurrection as glory, but what about Gethsemane and Golgotha, the mountains of agony and crucifixion? How can these moments of horror and darkness be any kind of glory?

I think the answer is twofold.

One is clearer in the language of the New Testament, which is Greek. The same word can mean both ‘glory’ and ‘fame’. Certainly what happened in the Garden of Gethsemane and upon the Cross of Calvary are famous – or shall we say notorious? – in human history.

But the other is that, in a strange way, these moments of utter darkness are illumined by the purest light.Image of the M87 Black Hole - a yellow ring thicker at the bottom surrounding a dark circle.

You may have seen the recent picture of a black hole at the heart of a nearby galaxy – a golden ring encompassing a heart of darkness.

As a scientist I can tell you that a black hole is also a pure form of energy. It’s nothing but mass – you might say, the ‘weight of glory’ – with all other details crushed away. Light falling into a black hole is converted from pure radiance to pure mass. So why do we see an incandescent ring? That light comes not from the black hole itself, but the death throes of the debris falling in. It is in that final agony of matter being crushed out of existence that the cry of pain becomes pure light, sending its signal across the Universe. Human history redounds with the memory of Christ’s agony in the Garden and his anguish upon the Cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Like a black hole, the Death of Jesus upon the Cross is a mystery hidden from human eyes. We do not see his descent to the realm of the dead, where the souls of all the God-fearing ancestors await with bated breath. We do not witness the moment when the Risen Christ enters once more into the realm of matter. We see only the death throes, and the ripples of what happened next, as they radiate out through space and time. The halo of light beckons us to attend to the mystery within! We are torn between turning our face from the horror and fixing our gaze upon the love it represents. “When I am lifted up [upon the Cross] I will draw all people to myself!” (+ See John 12:20-32.)

There are times in our lives when God asks us to surrender. Trust me! Let go! Don’t worry about looking foolish, or what your friends might think of you. Let me draw you in. You may be crushed. You may be changed. You may shine with my light in ways you do not expect. Let me take your pain. Let me take your sorrows. Let me take the rubbish which pollutes your life and draw it into an abyss from which it can never return. Let me fill you with my Holy Spirit, and with the gifts I have yet to release in your life.

For some of us, last night might have been a key moment when we freely gave to God those things that are stopping us from growing closer to Him, and received the gifts we need to take the next step. For others among us, it will have been the beginning of a struggle to let go and let God. Do not be afraid of the journey yet to come!

And how do we respond to God’s glory? This morning we were invited to “Come, ring out our joy to the Lord!” Every Mass is an invitation to rejoice. A Mass of a Sunday in Eastertide is a summons to celebrate! We have sung the song of the Christmas Angels, “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” Soon we will bring bread and wine to this altar. We will declare that we “lift up our hearts to the Lord”, and when I invite you to give thanks and praise, you will declare that it is right and just! We will sing another angel song – our “Holy Holy” comes from Isaiah’s vision of the six-winged seraphs praising God. When I raise up the Body and Blood of Christ, you will be witnesses to the hidden mystery of Jesus defeating Death and rising from the Tomb! When I invite you to “Behold the Lamb of God” I will be declaring that you have a reserved seat at the heavenly banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb which will never end.

Are you feeling excited yet?

Did you ever stop to contemplate that this is what you are invited to every Sunday?

No-one knows what God looks like, because no-one has yet seen God – but that day will come at the end of time. You will see Him face to face, and there will be no more tears, no more sadness, no more mourning.

No-one knows what your life will look like when transformed by God’s light – but that day will come very soon, if you let God in.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit! As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end. Amen!

+ We have to understand Jesus and His Father as a profound partnership, bound together by the Spirit which proceeds from each in turn. They have but a single aim, the salvation of the human race. Together they plan to pay the price of human sin. Together they agree that the Son will take upon himself human flesh, so he can experience mental anguish, physical torture, and a spiritual experience of disconnection from His Father in that moment of forsakenness upon the Cross. Outside the flow of human time, the Father’s love shines brightly in planning this rescue mission. Within our human history, the Son’s compassion for his fallen brothers and sisters burns brightly when he chooses, in the Garden, to be the victim for our sins, and then blazes upon the Cross when he abandons himself to the Father he can no longer sense. This is the hidden glory to which John’s Gospel points.

* For science purists, please note that I am including the polarization, orbital angular momentum and propagation vector under this one heading! Together with frequency (‘colour’) this fully defines an individual photon; and the ‘brightness’ is the summation of all the photons present on this trajectory.

Children of Light

Homily at the National Convention of Couples for Christ UKfeast of the English Martyrs

Awake! Arise! Fulfil! Live as children of light!

The world around us does not always welcome light. Jesus warned us what would happen to children of light. The rulers of this world, rulers clouded with darkness, will be offended by the light, and will question us. Even religious leaders who don’t share our vision will oppose us. Each age suffers its own kind of darkness.

2000 years ago, Stephen, a child of light, saw Jesus standing at God’s right hand. Jesus is God’s chosen messenger, the Christ! And for that, the Jewish leaders who had rejected Jesus and had him crucified, killed Stephen too.

500 years ago, King Henry VIII was the ruler of England – and a good Catholic, writing in defense of the Church. He wrote so powerfully that the Pope even gave him the title “Defender of the Faith”! If you look at a British coin, you will see the letters FD (Faith Defender) after the name of Queen Elizabeth II – our kings and queens have kept that title for themselves, but it is no longer the Catholic Faith they are defending.

By the 1530s, King Henry had turned against the Catholic Church because the Pope would not allow him to divorce a wife who had failed to bear him a son and heir. The King separated the Church in England from the leadership of the Pope. But in that age the children of light cried out that the Body of Christ must not be broken. Many priests, along with the laity who sheltered them and attended their secret Masses, were executed between 1535 and 1681 – we call them the English Martyrs.

We are the Children of Light God has chosen to live in England, or other parts of Britain, here and now, in 2019. This is a national conference – we are here because whatever our roots, this is the nation where God has called us to shine. How, then, are we to shine our light?

First, we must be clear vessels. If we are not true to our own faith, others will see that we are dirty vessels and hypocrites. So we must put our own lives in order. If you are a couple for Christ, how is your marriage doing? Is there anything stopping you having the honest conversations with your husband or wife needed to keep your marriage in good order? Are you struggling with temptations to use pornography, or looking for comfort from a person outside your marriage when you should be turning to your husband or wife? Are you civilly married but without your marriage blessed by the Catholic Church? Sort your life out! Children of light go to confession! Children of light ask for help from a brother or sister who can keep you accountable! Children of light live within the church!

Now we can prepare to be children of light for the world around us… but what kind of light will we be? There are two temptations we must avoid!

Here is a glow stick. It’s rather fun! We can wave it about and everyone smiles. This represents a lightweight Christian faith, which only does what’s easy and acceptable. We commit ourselves to being good workers wherever we work. We support local charities and ANCOP. We do those good things that everyone will approve, whether they are friends of Jesus or not. All of these things are good, But they are not enough.

Awake! Arise! Fulfil! But a sleeping world will not be woken or roused by inoffensive good works. Just doing these things will not fulfil the mission Jesus has given us. This glow-stick is light with no message.

Here is my laser pointer – it’s part of the remote control for my computer. Look, I can control this powerful beam and it goes where I want it. But this is a fearsome light. Shine it in someone’s eye and it can cause damage. We can take our Catholic faith and present it like a laser beam – you must say these prayers, do those devotions, and follow my rules. It looks like danger and control. This is a light with a bad message.

Awake! Arise! Fulfil! But we can become sleeping Catholics, following certain patterns without asking why we do what we do. That will not fulfil us either!

Here is my mobile phone. It has a light! But it also has a screen! I can receive messages and educate myself. This is what it means to walk as a child of the light. Let’s understand our Catholic faith in its fulness. We are not here to promote a narrow Catholicism where everyone has to do things my way – nor a wishywashy Catholicism which is only about helping people in trouble. We are children of light with a message, the message of Jesus.

In St Stephen’s day, the great question was – is Jesus God’s true messenger?

In the time of the English Martyrs, the great question was – can we be part of a single worldwide church, united around the Pope?

In our age, Britain in 2019, the great question is this – will you respect my religious beliefs about how human beings should live?

I know many of you work in healthcare, and the great religious questions of our time seem to relate to healthcare matters.

We believe that every human life is sacred to God. British law gives some protection to doctors and nurses who don’t want to perform abortions, but they can still be required to supervise abortions by their junior colleagues. Local Councils are beginning to bring in ‘buffer zones’ so that witnesses to life cannot pray peacefully near the entrances to abortion clinics.

Earlier this year, the Royal College of Physicians dropped its opposition to euthanasia and became officially ‘neutral’ even though more of its members opposed assisted dying than those who supported it.

This week, a Catholic journalist was served with a court order banning her from referring to a certain transgender person with the pronoun appropriate to the way that person was born.

These are difficult issues. If we speak about them in the wrong way we will be seen as messengers of hate rather than children of light.

Awake! KNOW about these issues. We must recognise that every person is loved by God and has their own dignity. This includes persons tempted to seek an abortion, to end their own life, to pursue a sexual relationship outside Christian marriage, or to explore their own gender identity. We are called to show sympathy and understanding at all times – otherwise we become like the laser beam, correct but narrow and dangerous.

Arise! DO something about these issues. Understanding on its own is not enough, otherwise we become like the glow stick, soft and comforting but with no greater purpose. British Law defends our right to manifest our religious beliefs. Let’s use that. Let’s take every opportunity to say that this nation supports diversity of religion, and our religion requires respect for human life and for the gift of the body we were born with.

Fulfil! The road to fulfilment is a challenging one. Each one of us can tell a story of being called to follow Jesus, of being tempted to compromise with the values of the world around us, or else live with the simplicity of a child of the light. If we are living a serious Christian life, we will have struggled, at times, to follow Christ’s values rather than our own. But we will also have discovered the kind of fulfilment that only comes when we let go and let God. This phone represents our ability to share wisdom and share light. Let’s share the stories of our own struggles so we can encourage others to persevere!

Brothers and sisters, we believe in a God who challenges us by asking us to be lights in a dark world. Let us follow the example of St Stephen and the English Martyrs, and walk a path which avoids the two great temptations:

Avoid misplaced compassion. We do not roll over when our Catholic values are unpopular. You are not couples for compromise; you are couples for Christ.

Avoid the temptation to be offensive; never lose your love for your enemy. You are not couples for coercion or control; you are couples for Christ.

This weekend, you will be asking how to use the gifts God has given you. Using charisms in your parish or CFC household is one thing; but living as a child of the light is another. These issues are around us – in our workplaces; in our children’s schools; in our own families. Society covers its ears to our viewpoint; our Christian light from above doesn’t fit the message of the age which is ‘follow your own inner light’. Be singles for Christ – couples for Christ – messengers for Christ. Stand on God’s promise that you will be given the words, but be prepared. Whatever you do, do it for Christ, in Christ, illuminated by the light of Christ.

Awake! Arise! Fulfil! Live as children of light!

Guidance for Guiders

Sermon for members of the Catholic Guide Advisory Council at a vigil Mass of Divine Mercy Sunday

Look at them! Aren’t they great! Everyone respects them! I’m not sure I could do what they do, though…

Who am I talking about?

In our age it could be the Salvation Army, or the RNLI Lifeboat crews… maybe even volunteers who work with uniformed groups. The attraction is the evident good fruit. The hesitation is the knowledge that there is a cost to getting involved… a cost which may take a person outside their comfort zone. A cost which requires someone to face a challenge and learn from her experience!

2000 years ago it was the first followers of Jesus. There was something attractive about them – a kindness and compassion which went beyond the tough society in which they lived. It didn’t hurt that miracles of healing took place regularly among them too! But there was also a hesitation – to become one of THEM required a declaration that the troublesome Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, was God-made-flesh, and that just didn’t fit Jewish or Roman ideas!

Every Guide, and Guiding Volunteer, makes the same promise: “to be true to myself and develop my beliefs”. You who have gathered here today are here because you are true to your own beliefs as Catholics, and you are asking how to be faithful to those beliefs in the world of Guiding today. This is a crucial question!

In Britain today, we claim to champion diversity. But I’m not sure there are many people who hold diversity as their highest value. Perhaps such a person exists… if so, imagine them giving a quick introduction to our culture?

Welcome to Britain. Here we prize diversity above all other things. Some of our people are physically disabled – it’s important to us that we provide reasonable adjustments at no personal expense. Some of our people experience same-sex attraction, and it’s important to us that they be allowed to pursue whatever adult relationships they wish with no harassment or legal restrictions. And some of our people belong to religions which teach the only proper place for a sexual relationship is in a marriage between a man and a woman, and it’s really important to us that parents should be able to pass on those values to their children without schools telling them otherwise!

Do you see the problem?

Deep down, most of us either believe in values which come from inside us, or outside us. Our society is shifting from Christian values to self-defined values. We can’t impose our Christian values on others, but we can ask for a mutual respect where we tolerate other values without being asked to celebrate different values. One of the great challenges for Catholics in our generation is to stand up and require that our British respect for diversity means that traditional moral values must be prized as highly as new liberal values. Doing this in a culture conscious of the need to “be true to myself and develop my beliefs” is even more important.

It’s not enough for us to open our mouths and ask for respect, though. Like the Christians we read about in Acts this evening, we must live our faith in a way which makes others respect us. We should stand out by the way we encourage struggling married couples to stay together and work attentively on their relationship. We should stand out by the way we not only chant pro-life slogans but work to give practical support to children born to reluctant parents of little means. We should stand out by the way we care for elderly relatives rather than rushing to the care home. We should stand out by behaving as generous employers and loyal employees.

Setting such an example will be attractive, but others will not flock to join us immediately. They will have questions about whether Jesus is the one to whom they are to entrust themselves. Is He Alive? Can He be trusted? You can lead people to Jesus, but not overnight.

It struck me as I prepared this sermon that:

  • A scout is someone who finds the way.
  • A guide is someone who shows others the way.
  • Jesus IS the way.

Your task is to develop and be true to your Catholic beliefs, but above all to show Jesus to the people you work with. He is the Way; you are the Guides of Guides. Do this, and you will have the respect of many.

The Risen Lord and the Queen of Peace

Mass for a group of pilgrims in Medjugorje on Easter Monday, at the Cenacolo Community Chapel

Have you not heard? Have you not seen?

This week, we’ve heard a lot about visions and apparitions.

The women in today’s Gospel, and Peter in Acts, claimed to have seen the Risen Jesus, very soon after he was nailed to a Cross and buried.

Visionaries in this place and in others have claimed to meet with his Mother – two thousand years after her life on earth came to an end.

Whatever you think of these claims, they can’t be ‘quite important’ in that English way we can nod at something and park it at the back of our minds. Either they are not important at all, or Jesus and Mary are asking to become two of the most important people in your life.

If you choose to let them in, there’s a cost.

Jesus will ask to be your personal coach. He will settle for nothing less than holiness. That doesn’t mean saying 10,000 prayers every day. It does mean he will challenge you to be the best version of yourself. His coaching plan includes a special diet, mental exercises and practical drill. The diet is that he wants to feed you with His Word and His Body, which are given to you in Mass. The mental exercises are to connect with God through prayer – he taught us the ‘Our Father’. The drill is called ‘loving others as yourself’ – and to do that well he wants to help you love yourself.

Sometimes we look in the mirror and we don’t like what we see. We’re ashamed of who we are. Jesus says ‘I love you just the way you are’ – and he likes what he sees. We’ve already been scouted for his training academy! The holy women went to tell the disciples to ‘go to Galilee’. That was the place Jesus called them so they could be trained. In fact Jesus doesn’t wait for them to go back there, he shows himself to the Eleven that same evening in Jerusalem. But his message through the women is, ‘get ready to be trained to spread the news I am Risen!’

Sometimes we look back on our day and we don’t like what we’ve done. Jesus doesn’t like our bad choices either. But if we say sorry and are resolved to make a different choice in future, he will always forgive us. Peter made a bold move when preaching to the Jews. ‘You had Jesus killed!’ he declares. But it’s not going to be a problem! Jesus will still love them and welcome them if they ask for this. ‘I want to help you to make better choices,’ he says. ‘Let’s go around again.’ That’s his style of coaching!

Sometimes we doubt the good news of Jesus and Mary because of the brokenness of the world around us. People we love get sick and die. Wars and famines and natural disasters keep worrying us in the news headlines. These things are not new – they were around when Jesus walked this earth in person. He was even once asked to comment on a tragedy when a tower collapsed killing a team of builders in a town called Siloam. ‘Was it a punishment from God?’ they asked him. Jesus said, “No!”; in effect he was saying ‘these things happen’ – and as far as we know he didn’t rush off to Siloam to raise the workers from the dead. But we also know he did heal some people as a sign that God was at work in him, and Peter isn’t afraid to preach this. In Jesus we meet the mystery of a God who sometimes gives positive answers to our prayers for healing. How does God choose? I don’t know. But I do know this – if we don’t ask, we don’t get. Not every footballer who calls for the ball gets it. But when the circumstances are right and the midfielder can make a clean pass, the striker sends it home and we experience a moment of glory.

Sometimes we take our eyes off Jesus and Mary because we are upset about someone who has died, or worried about our own mortality. Big mistake! Jesus and Mary come as witnesses that Heaven is for real. This week we’ve heard the claims made in Medjugorje that one of the visionaries was allowed to see her late earthly mother, and that the day after the parish priest Fr Slavko died, the Queen of Peace declared him to be in heaven. We don’t want to lose our loved ones, but we take comfort in the good news that they are not lost but kept safe by God, who knows exactly where they are.

This is Good News! Jesus is not dead – today he can forgive our sins, lift us from our shame and feed us with His Body, but only if we accept his coaching plan.

And then there’s Secret Mary*. No-one knows who she is unless she reveals herself to you. In the last two centuries, the Catholic Church has recognised that the Mother of God has visited the earth in many different places. She comes with the heart of a mother. There’s at least one Mum on this pilgrimage who has left a younger child in England in order to be with us, and I know her heart is torn. How much more so is the heart of the Blessed Mother torn at the thought that we won’t be able to spend eternity with her in heaven? So the Queen of Peace asks her squabbling children to make peace with each other and with God. Only those who forgive and ask forgiveness can be admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven.

So yes, if we let Mary into our lives, there’s a cost to that, too. She will call upon us to love with the heart of a mother. She will ask us to be peacemakers. She tells us that if we pray the rosary, that will help the world to find peace. I don’t know how that works, but I am happy to leave the details to Jesus and Mary. Have you seen the movie, the Karate Kid? The student has to keep cleaning the master’s car. Wax on! Wax off! Wax on! Wax off! Boring. Repetitive. But in the end the student realises that was training for some smart moves. So: Hail Mary. Hail Mary. Boring? Repetitive? Sometimes – but I trust the Queen of Peace Coaching Academy has a very good reason for training us in the right moves.

Have you not heard? Have you not seen?

I’ve heard that the Risen Lord and the Queen of Peace have revealed themselves 2000 years ago and in our own age too. Whatever you think of these claims, they can’t be ‘quite important’. Either they are not important at all, or Jesus and Mary are asking to become two of the most important people in your life. What happens next is up to you.

* ‘Secret Mary’ on this pilgrimage was a ‘Secret Santa’ gift-giving exercise.

Hope Impels Us

Homily at the Céilí Community Mission to the Drumraney and Ballymore Parishes

St Patrick’s Day Homily – Amos 7:12-15, I Thess 2:2-8 & Luke 5:1-11

Rejoice, and be glad, because God blessed this land with St Patrick!

Around the year 400, there were few Christians in Ireland. The message of Jesus was not unknown – it had spread through Roman Britain – but we have little evidence that the Irish people had accepted it. Then, a remarkable change took place. St Patrick was able to write in his Confession

How has this happened in Ireland? Never before did they know of God except to serve idols and unclean things. But now, they have become the people of the Lord, and are called children of God. The sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ!

Not only that, but noble women were insisting on becoming nuns even though their parents strongly opposed it! Both St Patrick and these noble women faced slander and lies in the face of his calling. Patrick also found that his enemies would confront him with the sins of his youth. He didn’t deny that he hadn’t lived a perfect life; indeed, he tells us, that’s why he wrote a Confession.

Patrick persevered. In the past, he had been a sinner; now he lived with integrity, refusing to take even a penny for baptisms and ordinations. By the middle of the 500s, the Catholic faith was present across Ireland, with the great monasteries of Clonmacnoise and Glendalough firmly established, and St Columba setting out to take the faith to the Scots.

What, then, can we learn from St Patrick?

First, the Catholic faith can quickly become strong in a place where it was once weak, or absent.

Second, in order to plant the faith we must behave with integrity and sincerity. We do not deny the sins of the past, but we hold ourselves to higher standards now and in the future.

Thirdly, when St Patrick preached the message of Jesus, he was planting something brand-new, which had not been seen in Ireland before; a great network of monasteries, convents, and priests to serve the people.

We, however, find ourselves in the same position as the apostles out fishing in today’s Gospel. We’re doing something very familiar, but it doesn’t seem to be working. “Lord, we have worked all night but caught nothing!” Our Catholic Church was strong in Ireland, within living memory, but now it’s falling apart!

Patrick offered his people an attractive new church. We, however, are known as a tarnished old church. Priests and people have let us down. Our leaders nationally, and internationally, have tolerated shocking bad behaviour which ought not to have been allowed. Maybe some of us spoke up, but like Amos in our first reading, the religious leaders did not want to hear our voice. In the big things, we put our priests on a pedestal and pretended they could do no wrong – but at the same time, when it came to the little things, we rushed to criticise. If a priest, tired from his day’s labour, snarled an unkind word in an unguarded moment, that could be all over town in a trice! Did not Our Lord Jesus warn us about being people who would strain out a gnat while swallowing a camel?

Dare we to hope that what happened in St Patrick’s day could happen again? Could the Catholic Church become strong once again in Ireland? Indeed it can – but not if what we have to offer is the kind of church which has been tried and rejected. Patrick came not to plant the church but to preach the Gospel. And what is the Gospel? Pope Francis has summed it up for our generation in this way: “Jesus Christ loves you, died for you, and walks with you to enlighten, strengthen and free you!”

The great thing about the Catholic Church is that we are a wide community, where there is room to do things in different ways. We are large enough for one Catholic to become a military officer, and another to become a conscientious objector. We are large enough for one religious order to promote care for homeless people or prostitutes while another works diligently to promote the Latin Mass. We don’t always pin down our teachings – for instance, while many Christians in the west believe Our Lady did not die, many in the east believe that she ‘fell asleep’ in the Lord before her body was taken into heaven. When Pope Pius XII made the Assumption a dogma binding on all Catholics, he deliberately didn’t settle this – he just said we must believe Mary’s body went to heaven “at the end of her earthly life”.

Sometimes we put things at the centre which shouldn’t be at the centre. For instance, earlier this week, I was sharing my testimony with some of you after morning Mass. Before I became a priest, I worked as a scientist. I’m not afraid to stand in this pulpit and say that I believe in the Big Bang and in human evolution. When I dared to suggest to some of you that I didn’t believe that the story of Adam and Eve was about an actual couple who lived on earth, I know what some of you were thinking – “I wish the church would make up its mind! Here’s another priest who believes something different about something else!”

We live in the age of Fake News. It’s easy to say something; people who want to believe it will believe it without checking the facts. People who don’t want to believe it are equally stubborn. But we have to be more canny than that! In the Church we have to keep the main thing the main thing. And what’s the main thing? It’s what we say in the Creed every Sunday – that Jesus Christ really lived, died for us, rose from the dead and opened the way to heaven for you and for me. The main thing is the Mass. Not the rosary or any devotions. St Patrick never said the rosary! He probably never said the “Hail Mary”! We have no evidence that any Christian said the prayer “Hail Mary” before the year 1000! I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray the rosary – just that we must know our onions so we don’t confuse the main course with the trimmings! And it’s the same thing with Adam and Eve – the church leaves us free to decide whether the story in Genesis is a parable meant to teach us something, or the true history of the world, as long as we accept that all of us are tainted because the first human being who ever lived fell short of God’s instructions and committed the first sin.

It’s been my privilege to preach to you this week as a member of the Céilí team – we could echo the words of St Paul today, that “so deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you … the gospel of God”. Next week we’ll be gone, but you will still be here, and the future of this church will be in your hands. If you want to win back Catholics who no longer go to Mass – who are no longer part of this church community – if you want our Church to become as strong as it was in the days of St Patrick – each one of us has to start behaving as a follower of Jesus.

No-one wants to be in a situation where five different churches have to be served by one parish priest, but that’s where we’re starting from. Jesus once said, “it is by your love for one another that people will know you are my disciples.” If this church can become a community where you work joyfully with your neighbours, share your priest cheerfully, and keep Christ at the centre, you have hope! Patrick prevailed, despite the sins of his youth, because he was a wholehearted follower of Jesus. This Christian community can prevail, despite the sins of the wider church and your own sins, if you too commit yourselves to be wholehearted followers of Christ. All the gifts you need to rebuild this parish, are within you. No other religion offers a Saviour who rose from the dead. You have the message of eternal life. Work together, speak the Gospel! Rejoice – and be glad!


Scarred Not Scared (But Sacred!)

Homily at the Céilí Community Mission to the Drumraney and Ballymore Parishes

Eucharistic Healing Service – Acts 9:31-35 and Matthew 25:14-30

We’ve just heard the very familiar Parable of the Talents, about three servants – but I’d like to share with you a lost page from the Bible which tells of a fourth servant. Like the others, the Master entrusted this one with some wealth, in this case three talents. And this fourth servant knew very well that the Master expected a return on his investment, so he set out for the marketplace with a plan in mind.

On the way to the market, this servant saw a poor beggar at the side of the road. He was moved with compassion and thought: “I have three talents. I can afford to give one away and invest the rest.” And so he reached into his bag of treasures and drew out one talent and gave it to the beggar with a smile.

When he reached the market, he went to the stall of his friend Reuben, who traded in fine spices, and asked if there was any coming venture in which he might invest. Indeed, said Reuben, he was about to sail a ship to India and the servant would be welcome to invest and share in any return on the spices brought back. This seemed like a good investment, but the servant was cautious, so he drew out just one talent from his bag of treasures, and invested this in Reuben’s trading trip. The third talent he took down to the bankers, and deposited it so it would earn some guaranteed interest.

In due course, word came that the Master had come back from abroad and was looking for a return on his investments. Our fourth servant hastened to the bank, and withdrew his deposit. Enough time had passed that he had doubled his money, so he now had two talents in his bag of treasures. Then he hurried on to the marketplace… only to find all the traders dressed in mourning and wearing long faces. One of them drew him aside. “Have you not heard the bad news? A messenger came this morning. Reuben’s ship has sunk in the Mediterranean, and all hands were lost.”

The servant’s heart sank. His friend had perished – and there would be no return on his investment. He had started with three talents – and now he had only two to show for his troubles. Nevertheless, he was an honest man and he knew the Master would demand an account of what had been entrusted to him, so with a heavy heart he started back up the long road to the Master’s house.

Worse was to come. As he made his way along the road, bandits attacked him, and grabbed his bag of treasures, stealing away the two talents he had left. By the time the poor servant had picked himself up, battered and bruised, and completed the weary walk to the Master’s house, the Master had practically finished dealing with the other servants. From the far side of the door, our servant heard the third servant having his one talent taken away and given to the one who had been most successful – and then being cast out into the dark.

Our servant was nervous. What punishment would await him when he came before the Master, empty-handed? It took him ages to pluck up the courage to open the door – so long, in fact, that they’d finished writing the Gospel story and that’s why you haven’t heard about this servant before. But he was a man of integrity and he knew he had to do the right thing, so he took a deep breath, presented himself before the Master, and poured out his tale of woe just as I have shared it with you.

To his great surprise, as he finished his tale, the Master looked at him and smiled. “O good and faithful servant,” he said, “thank you for your great efforts. I can see that you have genuinely tried to do your best with the gifts I have given you. There is no fault in being generous with what you have. Indeed –“ and he reached into his own treasure bag to draw something out – “I am most grateful for the one talent which you gave to me when I was sitting beside the road, begging. Now take it back and have another go.”

As we go through life, we become victims. Things happen to us which are beyond our control. Our loved ones meet with tragedies which cost them their health, their relationships, or life itself. And sometimes things happen to us precisely because we have stepped forwards and offered our services to the church or some other good cause. Somewhere in the Bible it says “I received these wounds in the house of my friends.” As we journey through Lent and celebrate the Stations of the Cross, we retell the story of how Jesus came among us to do good and was wounded with a crown of thorns, a journey of pain and a cross of wood.

Earlier this week, Mgr Pat reminded us that Jesus will always bear his wounds. How will we recognise the Risen Christ in heaven? His hands, his feet, his side, bear his wounds which are now glorious trophies of his Passion, Death and Resurrection. As you look at the beautiful stained glass windows in the churches of your parishes, how many symbols of Christ’s wounds can you find? The spear, the nails, the pillar where he was scourged… the list is almost endless!

A few years ago, a friend of mine, Canon Matthew, was visiting Ireland for his summer holidays when he had an accident – he fell down some stairs and broke his ankle rather badly. As he recovered from surgery, he realised there was a difference between his two feet. One had needed surgery, and there had been a wound where the operation had taken place – now that wound had become a scar. Although he would always be marked by that scar, a scar is a sign of a wound that was healed, and it wasn’t giving him any more trouble.

On Canon Matthew’s other foot, however, he now had an ulcer – a weeping wound which wouldn’t close. That was causing him a lot more trouble; a nurse had to come regularly and dress it. Sometimes we won’t let our own wounds heal – we go back and pick at them and cause more damage. I was 19 when I had chicken pox and it took huge willpower not to pick at the crusts but let them heal in the course of time. If I hadn’t left those wounds well alone, my face might now be visibly scarred.

All of us are wounded. Sometimes we have inflicted wounds on ourselves by our own stupidity or stubbornness. Other wounds are inflicted upon us. Being a follower of Jesus does not make us bulletproof; indeed he promised his friends that the world would persecute them, too. “Rejoice and be glad!” he told them “for this will surely take place.”

Each one of us is honoured with the name of “Christian” – a word which means “a little Christ”. A terrible thing has happened in the English language where sometimes we talk about “Catholics and Christians” instead of “Catholics and Protestants”. No! Any Catholic who is not a Christian is not a true Catholic at all. Being a Catholic doesn’t mean, first and foremost, belonging to a parish – it means being a member of the Body of Christ. It is because we are members of the Body of Christ through baptism – and fed with the Body of Christ in Holy Communion – that we share also in the dying and rising of Christ. None of us will escape being wounded. But what is on offer to us is the power of the Resurrection – the power for our wounds to become scars, healed wounds reminding us of spiritual battles where we have won victory over evil.

We don’t need to be afraid of showing our scars. We have all been wounded by life. The world around us pressures us to look perfect; we need the courage to be ourselves and not hide our wounds – they don’t need to be in control of us. Last summer, when Princess Eugenie got married at Windsor Castle, she had the courage to wear a dress which revealed a scar from a major surgery on her back. Fashion models, too, are beginning to say “We don’t need to hide who we are” – you can find their stories online by searching for #ScarredNotScared. And we don’t need to hide our wounds from the Lord. Whatever life has thrown on us – whatever wounds we may have inflicted on ourselves – like a loving mother, Jesus is less interested in chiding us for getting into trouble and more interested in tending to our wounds – but first, we must ask him for help. So are you battered by life? Wounded by choices that didn’t work out so well, or forces beyond your control? Come to Jesus, the wounded healer whose scars have been made sacred by his Sacrifice upon the Cross.

Tonight is a service of prayer for healing. We are invited to stretch out our hand in faith. In one of the Gospels, we read that a woman suffering a haemorrhage of blood pushed her way through a crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’s garment. The moment she succeeded, two things happened: she was physically healed, and Jesus felt power go out from him. He knew that he had not merely been touched – but that someone had reached out to him with an act of faith. This woman knew that Jesus had the power within him to heal her wound. She daren’t come to him and ask; in Jewish Law, her condition made her unclean. She ought not to have touched anyone in the crowd, let alone a rabbi. But she came anyway – and far from making anyone unclean, God’s power at work in Jesus made her clean in body and in soul.

Tonight we will place the Body of Christ, the Blessed Sacrament, upon this altar, and you too will have the opportunity to come before Jesus, the Great Healer. You can even touch the “hem of his garment” as the sacred cloths are draped at the foot of the monstrance. This is not a mere ritual of good luck, but an opportunity for you, like the woman with the flow of blood, to come and make an act of faith in Jesus, your Saviour.

When I was an undergraduate, I was commissioned as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. At the University Chapel, we had a large multipurpose hall, where Sunday Mass was celebrated, and a small dedicated chapel for daily Mass. I remember the last Sunday of the academic year: it was my turn to take what was left of the Blessed Sacrament from the main hall to the tabernacle in that little chapel. And for me, that year had been a very difficult one. I had suffered for months from tension headaches. I had fallen in love for the first time in my life, and suffered a double trauma – not only did the girl already have a boyfriend, but she was also in the process of giving up on her Catholic faith. I’d suffered a wobble in my own faith during the year too, but recommitted myself to Jesus after Easter. Now, on that last Sunday of the year, as I placed the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, I knelt down for a moment before I locked the door. “Lord Jesus,” I said, “I offer you all the joys and pains of this past year. I believe that you can take my sufferings and use them for good. I give you all that I am and all that I’ve done.” And as I prayed that prayer, it seemed that Jesus, in the tabernacle, spoke one word to me – not a word out loud, but a word straight into my heart, which resonated through me. And that word was – “Accepted.”

During that difficult year, I had had to make some important spiritual decisions. I had to choose not to cling to a relationship that I couldn’t have – and that “not clinging” also meant making sure that it didn’t dominate my prayer life. For a few months, my only prayer had been that the Lord would restore the faith of the friend that I loved – but he didn’t do it then, and I’m still in touch with her so I know he hasn’t done it yet, either. I do still pray for her, but not in the obsessive way I did back then.

I also had to make the spiritual decision to forgive. Note that I don’t say “forgive and forget”. Jesus doesn’t ask us to forgive and to forget. Our scars remain with us. But if we don’t forgive, our wounds become not scars but weeping ulcers. We forgive not because we have been asked for forgiveness, but because Christ asks us to be people of forgiveness. Only by choosing to forgive do we choose to stop picking at our wounds, whether the one who inflicted them has said sorry or not.

That year was a pivotal year in my life – it was the year I developed a closer relationship with God, and stopped saying “No” to the priesthood. It was the year that I offered up my wounds to Christ, so they could become scars – and those scars have shaped who I am today. Jesus is the Master of taking the wounds that life inflicts on us and turning them to the good. Indeed, my favourite verse in the Bible is from Romans – God turns all things to the good for those who love Christ Jesus.

“Get up and roll up your mat” cried St Peter to Aenas, the man bedridden for eight years. Note he didn’t just say “Get up.” For eight years, that mat had been his place of pity. “Look at me. I’m a cripple. No one is helping me. I’m going to be a professional victim.” Peter didn’t want Aenas to fall back into that place. So he declares healing, and moves him on – take away the place of pity, and let your wounds become scars.

We are an Easter people! In this earthly life, we are living through Lent, but we look forward to the reign of God, when there will be no more sickness, no more death, no more tears. Our Lord sometimes heals us in body during this life as a sign of the world to come; he also offers healing to our minds. Our wounds become scars, and on Easter night, when your priest blesses the new Easter Candle, he will mark it with a cross, declaring “By His holy and glorious wounds may Christ our Lord guard us and keep us!”

Tonight is an early Easter! Tonight the power of Christ is at hand, to heal and to make us whole. Tonight is the night when we can choose to forgive those who have harmed us – not because they have said sorry, but because we choose not to give them any more power to bind us. Tonight is the night when we stop picking at our open wounds and allow them to become glorious scars. Tonight, all of us are called to come before the Lord, no longer scared but willing to be scarred. Hope brings healing. Jesus brings joy. Be scarred, not scared, and your wounds too will become sacred trophies of Christ’s healing power. Come. Come now. Come to the Lord.