Expectant Joy

A bronze angel appears to a silver image of Mary, kneeling, on a purple backgroundHomily at Christ the King on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B.

Congratulations! You’re pregnant!

I can think of very few words with greater power to turn a life upside down.

A pregnancy is a promise of great changes to come, and a journey from here to there. Usually it begins by noticing that something subtle has changed. Then come the pains of morning sickness. As the child’s body takes form, the mother becomes aware that something is alive – and kicking – within her, but even with ultrasound technology, there will still be a revelation to come when the child is born. Even that’s not the end of the story, for it will take many years for the child to grow to maturity, the parents gradually discovering the person the child will become.

Tomorrow, the whole world will celebrate the birth of a child, and families will be reunited around a meal. Today, it’s only right that we acknowledge that for some of us, this will not be filled with all the joy we would hope for. Some parents – like Elizabeth – will know barrenness, and will have no children to share the celebration. Although childlessness was a stigma in Jewish society of those days, it was not and is not a sign of God’s displeasure. Other parents will celebrate this Christmas conscious that one of their children is missing – lost through miscarriage, or some tragedy later in life – or a child presumed alive but no longer in touch. Most of us will spend Christmas conscious of generations who are no longer with us, but the absence of a child brings a special pain.

If you’re a mum, or a dad, in one of these situations, I want to say something to you – and I’m happy to donate these words to anyone else who’s not sure what the ‘right thing to say’ is.

I’ve never been pregnant, and I’ve never fathered a child. I don’t know how you’re feeling right now. But I do care.

As a priest, I only get to know people’s personal stories when I’m called to the home or the hospital, so my “caring” has to be quite general. But I hope that if any of you here present today know someone personally who needs to hear those words, you have a chance to use them at the right time in the next few days.

When a pregnancy does go to plan, it still involves great uncertainty. When will the mother go into labour? What will the child be like? In a way, the whole Old Testament is a story of expectant waiting for the Christ-child: the prophet Nathan tells Royal David that he is destined to be the father of a line of kings, but will not be the one who gives birth to a Temple for God.

In my first parish, I was once called upon to help a pregnant mother, who had given birth to twins two days before Christmas. Her due date was in January, and although she already had children, she’d planned to buy a second set of the things you need for twins in the post-Christmas sales. But now she had gone into early labour, and the hospital planned to discharge her on Christmas Day. She lived in a rural village with no chance of buying baby equipment in the days after Christmas. So I put out an urgent appeal to my Christmas Eve congregation and they responded gloriously – after my last Mass on Christmas Day I met them in the hospital car park and handed over a carrycot and other useful kit before driving home to my parents. What could be more Christmassy then helping a baby in need?

St Paul was fond of using the image of a pregnant mother. In the letter to the Romans, he used the image of the whole world being ‘in labour’ as we live in an imperfect world awaiting the perfection of heaven, and in today’s extract he gives praise to God because he was alive at the long-prophesied time when God-made-man walked upon the earth.

As followers of Christ, knowing every human being bears his image, we have a solemn duty to welcome every child as we would welcome Christ himself. But that welcome doesn’t just extend to our pro-life stance. It extends to the way we treat every human being, especially the most annoying ones who cross our path!

During the next 24 hours, you’re probably going to attend a Christmas Mass. There will be lots of people there who only come to church once or twice a year. They will do some very annoying things. They will park where you like to park. They will sit in your favourite seat. They might have forgotten what they learned about good manners in church and chew gum or get distracted by their phones. When they do, our job is to make them welcome, for Christ is in them.

Congratulations! You’re pregnant!

You are about to give birth to Christ present in a guest in this or another church! Maybe that guest isn’t yet ready to re-connect with church regularly, and whether Christ brings renewed faith to birth in them depends on how well they experience love from you. So there are still some important gifts you can give this Christmas. You can give your regular seat and parking place to someone who needs to be welcomed. You can give a smile to the person who looks awkward at Christmas worship. You can give guidance with the order of service to the person sitting next to you. And most of all, do it with joy, giving glory to God, it is all part of the way the eternal God wants things to be! 

So remember, if you know someone for whom this Christmas is tinged with sorrow, let them know you’re thinking of them and are willing to listen if they want to talk. And when you meet someone who needs your welcome in the next 24 hours, welcome them as Mary welcomed the Christ Child. I don’t know exactly what or when God will ask you to do, but this I do know: you are pregnant, and your due date is at hand!


Some links useful if you are supporting someone who has experienced a miscarriage:

  • What should you say? Miscarriage Association New Zealand advice
  • Personal account from a woman who’s been there in The Guardian
  • The Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity SANDS
  • What if you lose one twin and not the other? The Rainbow Baby signal may help.

Cruse offers advice on how bereavement can impact Christmas.

Children in Spiritual Need

Assembly at Corpus Christi High School, 20 November 2017

I wonder how many of you spent Friday night watching the BBC’s Children in Need appeal? If you did, you’ll have seen lots of short films about children in different kinds of need and how money raised has been able to help them. This morning, I’d like to show you two more children in need…

We live in a world where things go wrong. Children are born sick, or get sick, or have accidents and become badly injured. Parents, too, can be struck down by some illness or injury.

It was exactly the same when Jesus was alive! He lived in a world where we didn’t have the medical knowledge we have today. The Bible tells us that twice he raised children back to life when they had died. He healed people who were deaf, blind, or couldn’t walk – in one case, a man who had been disabled for 38 years!

Some scholars look at the world we live in and decide to blame God. They say that if God can’t do anything to fix it, he’s not very powerful and isn’t much of a god. But if God could fix it and chooses not to, he’s a mean god and not worthy of our attention. Me? I don’t think either of those answers are right.

When I was 11 years old, my grandma died. I was hurting, and I had a choice. I could choose to blame God, as the person who took my granny away – or I could turn to God for help, believing he could do something about it. I chose to ask God for help, and that was when I discovered that God was really there and wanted to help me and guide me.

The families in the video we have just seen also chose to turn to God for help. When these children were ill, they found strength from God through the sacrament of anointing the sick.

Jesus came into a world of sick people and said: “God is with you and wants to help you.” How does God want to help us? Sometimes by a miraculous cure – indeed, behind every saint canonized, there’s a story of God allowing someone to become seriously ill, and then receiving a miracle through asking the prayers of that saint. But often God wants to help us by walking with us through the times of darkness. We’re going to learn a song now which helps us understand what God wants to say to us in difficult times.


This assembly uses Children in Need as a cultural starting point and is not meant to endorse Children in Need. There are legitimate concerns about the morality of some of the projects it funds, as articulated by John Smeaton. On the other hand, Catholics are allowed freedom of conscience to choose something largely good which has some negative aspects – you can read my essay on how far we can compromise.

Men of God

Homily for the Couples for Christ (South Region) men’s retreat at Hebron Hall, 11 November 2017

Gentlemen, today I would like to introduce you to a beautiful woman! She is called: WISDOM!

St Paul speaks about a gift of knowledge and a gift of wisdom. Knowledge is having an understanding of true things. Wisdom is about knowing the best way to do things. If you let this lady into your life, she will make a true man of you!

The wise bridesmaids Jesus spoke about are a sign of us as Christians, brides of Jesus. And gentlemen, although this may feel a bit awkward, each one of us is a bride of Christ. These ladies are our role models, always on the lookout for signs of Jesus. As Christians, you must be men of prayer, always ask Christ to guide and lead you in the decisions you make. Study his Holy Word – for there is no point praying for an answer, and ignoring the answers Jesus already gives in the Bible!

But because the Bible uses the image of Christ as a bridegroom, Jesus also teaches you, gentlemen, what it is to be a perfect husband. Jesus lays down his life for the bride he loves. You who are married, each one of you is called to lay down your life for your wife. This may mean a few big sacrifices – but it usually means lots of little ones.

What happens when you come home from work, and your wife wants to talk? Do you half-listen while reading your smartphone and mutter “yes dear” without really hearing the words? A man like Jesus, a truly wise man, will choose to put down his smartphone and give his wife half an hour of undivided attention when you are both home after a busy day. Each one of you, gentleman, has been blessed with a superpower by God. It is the power to choose to stop what you are doing and show your wife, by words and actions, “Your needs are more important than mine right now.”

If you find yourself in an argument, always ask yourself whether you are being driven by the need to win, or the real issue you are arguing about. If your wife’s solution is reasonable, don’t be afraid to say “OK”. Remember a wise saying: “The noble art of losing face will one day save the human race.”

One subject it is easy to get caught in arguments about, is money. You come from one family. Your wife comes from another family. Now you have started your own family, but the other two families need your support, remittances of money sent home. How much is a fair share for your wife’s family? How much is a fair share for your parents and their extended family? The Bible does ask you to honour your parents, but it also says that when a couple marry, they start their own household. Your first obligation is the needs of your wife and children. Beware of getting into debt because you are giving too much away. Don’t borrow unless you can see how you can repay it. But if anyone is in debt, struggling to repay, and you don’t know where to turn, I recommend this UK charity which will advise you: Turn2Us.

Once your own family needs are secure, whatever you then send to relatives and cousins is a gift. Does a “fair share” look like an equal slice for each living grandparent? For each living cousin – if one side has more cousins than the other? Is it fairer to give more to a relative who is sick? Beware – there can be more than one “fair” way to do things! Even Jesus refused to take part in an argument about dividing up two brothers’ inheritance! Why not first agree how much of your monthly income you can “give away” in total – to family, to your parish, to ANCOP and any other charities you want to support. Make a list of all the people and causes you want to help. Then let you and your wife each take a copy of the list and separately divide up your give-away pot in the way you think is fair. When you show each other the list, take the two decisions and take their average. There’s no easy way to make a better agreement – because we value different causes differently. Remember, the only fair amount to give away is zero. Anything beyond zero is not fair; it is generous, because it is an undeserved gift.

Gentlemen, in today’s world of technology, we face another grave danger. It is called pornography. It is a lie. It is a dangerous lie, because it makes us wish our women could reach impossible heights. It is a serious sin, because every time we demand it on our phones or shops, we are making a request for someone else to sin so we can have pleasure. There is no place for porn in the life of a Man of God, except the place of the confessional where you can seek spiritual healing. If this is something you struggle with, I recommend to you a website called ClicktoKick.

The Bible warns us of temptations from the world, the flesh and the devil, temptations which come in the form of money, sex and power. Jesus battled Satan in the wilderness; and you, gentlemen, are called to battle Satan in your daily lives. Your aim is to be a real man, as Jesus was a real man, wielding weapons of humility, graciousness and wisdom.

Today I have tried to offer you the company of Lady Wisdom, who guides you in doing what is right in everyday life. The Second Reading speaks of a day of judgment, when you will meet Christ. He will judge you on how well you have imitated him and embraced this gift of wisdom. Each day you must refill your lamp, asking God for strength to do the right thing, to die to yourself and serve your bride. Only in this way can each one of you become a true man of God, head of a Couple for Christ. Blessings upon you.

 

 

To Know the Mind of God!

SERMON FOR THE CATHOLIC COMMUNITY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ESSEX21st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

I’m in Essex this morning because I’m travelling – I’ve had a holiday in France and I’ll be spending the coming week with the Sion Community in Brentwood. That means that I haven’t seen my cat for three weeks. I did try to explain to him that I was going to be away for a month, but I don’t think he understood – the best I could do was a special tickle behind the ears before I left.

We human beings can do something my cat can’t – we can use language to communicate ideas. But sometimes even language fails. St Paul never met Our Lord when he was preaching and teaching on earth – it was only after Christ had ascended into heaven that St Paul was given a deep and mysterious vision. Whatever Paul saw, it turned him from someone who attacked Christians into the Number One defender of Christ!

Today’s Second Reading is from a long letter which Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome – a community he had never visited in person. He’s just finished a long section pondering the ways God has tried to communicate with human beings. God called Abraham to be the father of a chosen people, Moses to liberate the Israelites from slavery, and raised up countless prophets to remind the Kings of Israel that they must keep their Covenant with God in order to benefit from divine protection. Then God changed the deal, sending Jesus; although some of the Jews recognised him as their long-awaited Messiah, many others turned against him. Now Paul has come to understand that the message of Jesus is not only for the Jews, but for all people!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. If we started with a blank piece of paper and tried to work out how God might have communicated with human beings, would we have come up with a story like that, taking us from Abraham to Christ? Probably not! And do we human beings have more hope of understanding God’s plans, than my cat can understand that I am going away for a month but then returning? The good news is that not only do we have the gift of language, God has stooped down to our level to speak to us! In the person of Jesus, God became man to speak to us in human words and human actions! Not only that, but sometimes God speaks to us individually, giving us a moment of clarity or deeper understanding through prayer!

Today’s Gospel gives us an example. “Who do people say I am?” asks Jesus. St Peter nails it – “You are the Christ!” How does Peter know? God-the-Father has planted that knowledge deep in his soul!

Although God reveals some things to us, we don’t have the full understanding of things as God sees them. Here’s an example which might help. My cat is very good at praying. Whenever he sees me, he asks for food! If it’s the right time, I feed him… but since he’s a rather fat cat, sometimes the answer to his prayer has to be “not right now”. I don’t think he understands why he sometimes receives what he asks for, but not always. But I do know he keeps on praying!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. Before I became a priest, I was a professional astronomer – I have a PhD in astrophysics – so I ought to mention the famous quote by Professor Stephen Hawking. In his book, A Brief History of Time, he concludes by saying that if we had a full explanation of “why it is that we and the universe exist”, we would “know the mind of God”. Later, Hawking clarified that he doesn’t believe in God, but if we knew the rules that govern the Universe, and why they work the way they do, we would know everything that could be known.

Actually, Hawking is half right. The universe around us clearly obeys ordered rules which are, at some deep level, TRUE. Since all truths are part of God (Jesus said “I am the Truth”) then to know the laws of the Universe is to know part of the mind of God. But what Hawking would admit himself, if you pushed him, is that even if we knew those laws fully, we could never predict exactly what the universe, the earth, or an individual human life would look like; within those laws there is space for random outcomes, due to quantum mechanics, and for results that can’t be computed accurately enough, due to what mathematicians call chaotic behaviour, so that each human story remains a mystery to be unfolded only in the telling.

“Who can be God’s counsellor?” asks St Paul. Sometimes our prayers do tend towards giving God advice. “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking!” Or when we pray for our loved ones, do we explain their situation and problems to God? I’ll let you into a secret – God knows their problems already, even the ones you don’t know about! But God still appreciates the act of love which is you taking time to talk about them.

Last Wednesday the universal church celebrated St Rose of Lima – like St Paul, she sometimes received mystical visions. One led her to a deep understanding of why God permits human beings to suffer and how God would use it for good. A similar understanding came to a local Englishwoman, Mother Julian of Norwich, who confidently assures us that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

It would be nice if there were a God who stopped all pain and suffering in this life. But there’s no earthly religion which offers that – if there were, we would have all joined up long ago! That leaves only two possibilities – either there is no god, or there is a God who exists alongside this world with all its pains and problems. I wasn’t intentionally looking for God when my granny died – I was 11 years old – but when I cried out to any god who might be there to take care of her soul, something deep and mysterious happened which allowed me to make a connection with Jesus, to become a Catholic, and in due course, to become a priest. There’s no time now to tell my story in depth, but I’d be happy to do so informally, after Mass.

We do, however, believe that God has a plan to deal with pain and suffering. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he left us with a promise that one day he will return to remake the world, reversing death and banishing tears – a belief so fundamental that we affirm it every time we say the Creed. I don’t know whether Christ will come again before the happy day next month when my cat discovers that I have come home! But we are invited, as friends of Christ, to spend this life plumbing the depths of God, so that we can experience greater joy when we meet God in the world to come. Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus, come!

Keep On Praying!

SERMON FOR THE PATRONAL FEAST OF ST MONICA – Wivenhoe, EssexProper Readings, plus Romans 11:33-36

I’m in Essex this morning because I’m travelling – I’ve had a holiday in France and I’ll be spending the coming week with the Sion Community in Brentwood. That means that I haven’t seen my cat for three weeks. I did try to explain to him that I was going to be away for a month, but I don’t think he understood – the best I could do was a special tickle behind the ears before I left.

We human beings can do something my cat can’t – we can use language to communicate ideas. But sometimes even language fails. St Paul never met Our Lord when he was preaching and teaching on earth – it was only after Christ had ascended into heaven that St Paul was given a deep and mysterious vision. Whatever Paul saw, it turned him from someone who attacked Christians into the Number One defender of Christ!

Today’s Second Reading is from a long letter which Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome – a community he had never visited in person. He’s just finished a long section pondering the ways God has tried to communicate with human beings. God first called the Jewish people to a special relationship with him, a covenant relationship, through Abraham, Moses, and countless prophets after the reign of King David. Then God sent Jesus; although some of the Jews recognised him as their long-awaited Messiah, many others turned against him. Now Paul has come to understand that the message of Jesus is not only for the Jews, but for all people!

“Who can know the mind of God?” asks St Paul. If we started with a blank piece of paper and tried to work out how God might have communicated with human beings, would we have come up with a story like that, taking us from Abraham to Christ? Probably not! And do we human beings have more hope of understanding God’s plans, than my cat can understand that I am going away for a month but then returning? The good news is that not only do we have the gift of language, God has stooped down to our level to speak to us! In the person of Jesus, God became man to speak to us in human words and human actions! Not only that, but sometimes God speaks to us individually, giving us a moment of clarity or deeper understanding through prayer!

Today we are celebrating a woman of prayer, St Monica, from whom this church community takes its name. She is most famous for the years she spent praying that her wayward son, Augustine, would become a faithful Christian. After many years she was rewarded – Augustine had a moment of clarity when God spoke to him, “Take and Read!” He picked up the scroll closest to hand, which was none other than St Paul’s Letter to the Romans! He was so convicted of the message that God was real, God loved him, and could forgive his wicked ways, that he was soon baptised as a Christian and went on to become perhaps the greatest scholar of the first Christian Millennium.

Today, though, we should focus not on the son but on the mother. St Monica was a great woman of faith, supporting a husband and two sons who didn’t always share her beliefs. She persevered, acting in faith when she could, and praying for the people she loved to come to know Jesus Christ, too.

“Who can be God’s counsellor?” asks St Paul. Sometimes our prayers do tend towards giving God advice. “Listen Lord, your servant is speaking!” Or when we pray for our loved ones, do we explain their situation and problems to God? I’ll let you into a secret – God knows their problems already, even the ones you don’t know about! But God still appreciates the act of love which is you taking time to talk about them.

Jesus taught us to persevere in praying for things, and St Monica is a perfect example of praying faithfully that other members of our family should come to know Christ. If we have grown tired of praying for our own family members and friends, today is an invitation to begin again. And if we have experienced disappointment in our prayers not being answered, we need to be humble enough to trust God’s timing.

Here’s an example which might help. My cat is very good at praying. Whenever he sees me, he asks for food! If it’s the right time, I feed him… but since he’s a rather fat cat, sometimes the answer to his prayer has to be “not right now”. I don’t think he understands why he sometimes receives what he asks for, but not always. But I do know he keeps on praying!

Our first reading today was a Jewish reflection on what makes an “ideal wife”. Sometimes the Bible teaches us values which must be held by all Christians in all cultures and circumstances – but in other places it reflects the values of the people at the time of writing. I’m not going to suggest that our first reading is a template for all the married ladies here this morning! But every Bible passage can be read in a spiritual wife, and a “wife” in the Bible can represent a church community, since the church is the Bride of Christ.

A patron saint’s day is a perfect opportunity for this church community to ask: “What kind of wife am I to Christ?” Are we a “chaste” community? That means, are we faithful to Jesus or do we let other values – money, sex or power – lead us astray? Are we, like St Monica, praying for our “prodigal sons” to return – and not only those in your blood family, but also those in your church family? And being a “silent” wife doesn’t mean that we keep schtum when we see problems in the community around us – but it does mean that it’s not our place to contradict our husband. If Christ, or the church leaders he has given us, ask us to do difficult things, our role is to do our best to fulfil them.

I’m very conscious today of being a visitor on a day which is central to the identity of this community. I don’t know the joys and sorrows which are the story of St Monica’s. So I can’t comment on any specific issues. I’ll be moving on – and that means there will be a happy day next month when my cat discovers that I have come home and probably gets an extra portion of food to celebrate! I will leave you with this question to ponder: If the Second Coming happened today, what would Our Lord find to correct, or to congratulate, in St Monica’s?

Save Us From the Fires of Hell

Homily at Christ the King for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A.

“Pray and make sacrifices, because so many souls go to Hell…”

Those are not my words, but the words of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to St Jacinta Martos and her cousin, Lucia dos Santos.

One hundred years ago this weekend, these children, with Jacinta’s brother, St Francisco, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary while they were tending sheep outside the village of Fatima, in Portugal. It was to be the first of six visions spread over six months. In the course of those visions, Our Lady of Fatima showed the children a vision of Hell and promised to take them to Heaven. She warned that many souls were in danger of going to Hell because they were not leading the right kind of life. She asked the children to offer up sacrifices so that God would give to those souls the grace of conversion – enough grace to carry them all the way to Heaven.Grey statutes of the Fatima children, Jacinta (seated) and Francisco (standing_

The Gospel we’ve heard today is very familiar – it’s the one most commonly chosen for Catholic funerals. There’s a very positive message: Jesus has prepared a room in heaven for each person on earth. But that doesn’t guarantee that every soul will arrive in the place prepared for them. We never claim the soul of any person, other than an infant, goes directly to heaven until that person has been canonised – so we rejoice that the Church has canonised St Jacinta and St Francisco this weekend. At a funeral, we presume the soul is on the way to heaven, but may benefit from our prayers to help the soul pass through Purgatory more swiftly. The message of Fatima challenges us to pray another kind of prayer, a prayer which saves souls alive on earth today from going to Hell.

There are deep mysteries here. First of all, why does God need us to pray for sinners to be converted? Why doesn’t God just convert them?

Last weekend we marked Good Shepherd Sunday, a day to remember that Jesus called us to pray for the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to the harvest. The “labourers” can mean priests, but can also mean any Christian souls willing to invite other people to become members of the Church.

God has so much respect for us, as members of the body of Christ, that He invites us to be part of His great plan – His plan for more shepherds, and His plan for the sheep.

The second mystery is whether it can really be true that souls are in so much danger of going to Hell? Didn’t Jesus say in today’s Gospel that he had gone ahead of us to prepare the way to Heaven? Indeed he did – and he explained to St Thomas that the way to get there is to follow him!

Among people who are not church members, many today believe that this life on earth is all we’ve got, so we should make the most of it while we still can. We have a message for them – God has so much more in store!

Within the church, we have a bigger problem. Two whole generations of Catholics have grown up with the impression that God is a kindly grandpa who looks the other way when we choose to sin, and throws open the gates of heaven when we die. That’s false! That’s cherry-picking some bits of the Gospels. Yes, the Father of the prodigal son ran to meet him, but not until the son had come to his senses and resolved to go and apologise to his father!

Third, why does God need our sufferings? Today’s Scripture says we are a holy priesthood offering sacrifices to God, and that by doing so we build up God’s house. The greatest sacrifice of all was Jesus dying on the Cross – but because baptism makes us members of Christ’s body, we can offer own little sacrifices as our contribution to this work. This is the priestly work that ALL members of the church are called to undertake.

How do we do this? The children of Fatima were taught a prayer that they could say whenever they voluntarily accepted any hardship, rather than choosing to complain: “Oh my Jesus, it is for love of you and in reparation for sins against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”

Daily life will send us plenty of material for sacrifice. Sometimes, we have to sacrifice our pride to let well-meaning people help us. Sometimes we have to go the extra mile to do a favour which is not onerous but certainly inconvenient, helping a family member, friend, or stranger. Sometimes, life sends us physical aches and pains – these too can be material for sacrifice rather than complaint

Each of the three children of Fatima had a different calling. Lucia is not yet canonized. She lived until 2005, and her case is still being investigated: she remained on earth as a witness. Her two cousins both died in the Spanish ‘Flu which swept Europe before 1920. Our Lady said that she would take Jacinta to Heaven – and Francisco, who saw the vision but did not hear the words – would go to Heaven too, but first he would have to pray “many rosaries”!

So, my dear friends in Christ, let us not take Heaven for granted. We rejoice today that Jesus has opened the way – but to get there we must follow Him, and for others to get there, they must follow Him too. Let us not forget to pray that many people will indeed choose to start following Jesus on earth, and so find the way to their home in heaven. If we add daily sacrifices to our prayer, we will be doing something most pleasing to Our Lady – but we will only find out what great fruit our prayers bring when we reach that heavenly home prepared for us.

St Jacinta – pray for us!

St Francisco – pray for us!

Our Lady of Fatima – pray for us!

If You Really Loved Me…

Homily at the Celebrate Catholic Family Conference in Cardiff – Feast of St Catherine of Siena

What would you do if you really loved me?

That might seem like a strange question – especially to those of you who haven’t met me before today. Yet we seem very capable of providing other people with answers:

  • If you really loved me, you’d be ready on time.
  • If you really loved me, you’d remember my birthday.
  • If you really loved me, you’d call more often.

Let’s face it, none of us like being nagged into doing things by other people. And they clearly don’t understand the pressures I am under. That’s why I wasn’t ready, didn’t call, forgot your birthday. I do care, honest!

In fact, while we are busy telling other people how to love us, what about God?

  • If you really loved me, you wouldn’t have let my granny die yet.
  • If you really loved me, you’d have stopped me getting ill.
  • If you really loved me, you’d have kept my family together.

Whoa! Listen to the words of St John. “God is light, there is no darkness in him at all.”

In the Old Testament, the Book of Job tells the story of a man suddenly afflicted by every possible woe short of death. Job refuses to curse God but does put his complaint into a prayer. God’s only answer is to ask Job, “Can you create a universe and keep it running?”- it reminds me of the scene in the film Bruce Almighty where Bruce, who is standing in for God, tries to answer every prayer on earth with a Yes at the same time, and chaos breaks out.

Seems to me we’re not given the option of believing in a God who runs the world the way we would like it to be, Perhaps God can’t fix everything to everyone’s satisfaction. If God could only fix one thing for you, what would it be? Might it be death itself? What if God could fix things so we could live for ever in a place of happiness? What if God could find some way of forgiving our sins and opening the door to heaven?

Oh… hang on, wasn’t it Easter a couple of weeks ago? This sounds rather familiar.

Every time we celebrate Mass, at the heart of the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest declares: The Mystery of Faith! This is an invitation for us to declare that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead. But it also reminds us of another mystery, that those of us gathered at the Lord’s table have been given this gift called faith! We are the “mere children” to whom Jesus showed his Father, not like the grown-up people who think they are too sophisticated to believe in God.

If you are familiar with C. S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles you might remember the terrible phrase in the later books – “Susan was no longer a friend of Narnia”. A woman who had once believed in God had let her faith slip to take on the values of the world around her.

I can’t give you the gift of faith. But I am going to assume that because you are here at a Christian weekend, you have already received that gift, at least in part. That childlike part of your heart senses that God is all good, pure light, worthy of your faith – listen to it! And when you are tempted to blame God, repeat to yourself: “God is light, there is no darkness in him at all.”

It’s not for us to tell God how to love us. Rather, if God is who we think God is, God is the only One with the right to say to us, “If you really love me, here’s what I want you do so.” A yoke is a collar for steering a beast doing useful work. We cannot put on the yoke of Christ without accepting that God’s choices are better than ours. It’s when we take on the yoke of Christ that God truly becomes our king. Only then can we ask in prayer, “Lord, what do you want me to do?”

There was a woman, whose name was Catherine, whose heart asked that question with childlike simplicity. She was the 24th child in her family – though in the 1300s, half of those children didn’t survive for more than a few months. Her parents said, “If you really loved us, you’d marry your widowed brother-in-law.” but Catherine refused: she wanted to dedicate her virginity to Christ. God honoured her choice, and took her deeper. At the age of 16, she became an associate member of the Dominican religious order, and shut herself up at home to live a life of prayer. But at the age of 21, God spoke to her. “If you really love me, you’ll help the poor and needy.” Whatever deep experience she had of God, it propelled her out of her religious cell and into the midst of the sick and poor people of the city of Siena. It even propelled her into the world of politics, where most famously she called upon the Pope, then in exile in France, to have the courage to return to Rome!

This year’s Celebrate theme is “Seek first his kingdom”. St Catherine did – but it took time for God to prepare her for her final mission, and she was deeply misunderstood by her family along the way.

If you are going to seek God’s Kingdom, you need to set your own crown aside. You no longer have the right to tell anyone, except yourself, what they “ought” to do in the name of real love. Christ’s yoke is light – the actual Greek word in the Bible means something like “well-fitting”, tailor made, a yoke for your own personal circumstances. But it is still a yoke.

How can we put on the yoke of Christ? The first step might be to forgive God for not doing things your way. God cannot sin in the sense of “wrong doing”. God cannot be responsible for darkness. But the word “sin” can also mean to “lack something”, and God can lack the vision that you would have for God.

The second step is to ask how we need to change our expectation of other people. Our parents, our spouse, our parish priest, can’t always love us in the way we hope for. So we choose to forgive them not only for their actual faults, but for failing to give us everything we hoped for from them.

The third step is to ask how we need to change our expectation of ourselves. “Lord,what would you like me to do? Thy will be done, Thy kingdom come.” This is the prayer of everyone who seeks God’s will. We may find that God is asking us to get out of our comfort zone and do something practical – or even to talk about our faith with other people, in the hope they come to share it too!

One final thought. 18 years ago, St John Paul II named St Catherine as one of six patron saints of Europe. I wonder what thoughts that word, Europe, stirs up in you right now?

  • If you really loved me, you’d want my Polish wife to be secure.
  • If you really loved me, you’d want my son to have a good chance of getting a job.
  • If you really loved me, you’d get on with running the country without involving me in all these elections and referenda!

Each one of us who is baptised shares in the work of Christ the King. It is our privilege and duty in our British democracy to exercise our share of this Kingship by voting, and voting prayerfully. There are times for debate and times to unite. As a nation, we are given a window to choose; then we must make the best of the choice made by the majority, and do so with good will.

What would you do if you really loved me? The very word “love” is so rich that the possible answers range from “I’d pray for your ministry” to “I’d give you a hug”. But I’m not the important one here. It’s about Jesus. What would you do if you really loved him? Seek first his Kingdom!

I am grateful for some inspiration from the Huffington Post, where Dr Margaret Paul speaks of what people who love would or wouldn’t do, with the consoling message that if they won’t, it’s about them not you!