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.

Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment

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

Reconciliation Service – James 2:5-13 and Mark 2:1-12

Bang! Bang! Bang!A gavel banging on its stand

How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?

Most, if not all of us, have got caught doing something we shouldn’t have done, if not recently then at least when we were children. And what do we instinctively do? We try to wriggle out as fast as we possibly can! “It wasn’t me!” Or if that’s not plausible “I didn’t do anything actually wrong!”

As adults, we face a battle to choose between trying to clear our name and admitting that we don’t always make the best choices. For instance, what if we’re out driving and we get caught speeding? We can ask for our day in court and hope we can get off on some technicality – but the risk is we’ll be given a much bigger fine than if we had put our hand up and accepted our penalty points in the first place!

Part of us will always want to make excuses. But an excuse is a terrible thing! It’s worse than a lie! It’s been called “a lie guarded”. The best way to ‘fess up to our sins is to do so without excuses: “Yes, I admit that I did that, and I’m sorry.”

The great thing about confession, is that once we have pleaded guilty, Our Lord Jesus can deal with your fine. He can’t do anything to help people who make excuses or claim to be innocent. But the moment we plead guilty, a wonderful thing happens. Jesus steps in and offers to pay our fine, in full! He accepts all the consequences of our sins!

Now, what penalty do we deserve for our sins? Let me tell you a story which came to me from a law clerk – in England, offenses too small for a jury are often tried by a lay magistrate who is advised by this kind of law officer. One day, the magistrate on duty was considering a traffic offence. He leaned over and asked the clerk, “What’s the maximum penalty?” The official, knowing all the possible penalties on the statute book, whispered back, “Imprisonment for life!” The magistrate looked very surprised until the clerk said – “Oh, you didn’t specify that you meant for a traffic offence!”

In fact, for us, it’s worse. The maximum penalty is Death. God wanted our world to be perfect, free of all sin. But because we have sinned, we don’t receive the gift of eternal life without death that God wanted to give us in the beginning. Only our Blessed Mother could receive that gift. Because each one of us has messed up God’s plan for a perfect world, God would have every right to destroy us and start again. But that’s not God’s plan at all! He is the Lord of second chances!

Do you want a Second Chance? Yes. Excellent! But to receive your second chance, you must first come before the Judge.

In today’s Gospel, we see a sign that Jesus has the power to forgive sins. He passed this same power on to his apostles, and they to the priests who serve in the Church. So why can’t we pray to God in private and be forgiven? We can, for the smallest sins – but when we confess those to the priest, we receive a special blessing for our humility, which we call the grace of the sacrament, help to resist those temptations in future. Confession wasn’t an idea cooked up by some bored priests so we can spy in your lives – it was God’s idea when he passed on the power to forgive sins to his ministers. This was done by the same Jesus who will come back one day to judge the living and the dead, so I’m thinking that following his instructions is the best idea!

Remember, in a big trial, it’s not the judge’s job to decide whether you are guilty or not. The jury decides whether you are guilty – and if you are, the judge’s job is to pass the appropriate sentence.

This Lent, you are invited to a courtroom – a most unusual courtroom – called the Tribunal of Mercy.

In this courtroom, mercy triumphs over judgment.

In this courtroom, you are both the accused and the prosecutor.

In this courtroom, you are also the jury. And you have come to court for one simple reason – you have already found yourself to be guilty.

In this courtroom, too, a judge is waiting to pass sentence. But the sentence has already been served!

The sentence is Death. Jesus died upon the cross, so that your sins can be forgiven!

In the church, tonight, each priest waiting for you stands in the place of Christ Our Judge. But the judgment is a merciful one. Your place is to go before the judge and plead guilty. The judge will assure you that Jesus has already served your sentence, so you are free to go. Yes, you will be given a penance to carry out – but that is not your sentence. The penance is simply a “thank you” gesture appropriate to thank the Lord who has freed you from your sins.

Just as a lawyer prepares the case carefully before going to court, so each one of us needs to prepare ourselves well to go to a priest for confession. Tonight, I ask you to show respect for the priests, and for the other parishioners waiting to go to confession, by being ready to confess.

Now here’s what sometimes happens when I’m hearing confessions: “Bless me Father! I’m a good person really. I don’t do anything wrong. I don’t cuss, I don’t steal, I look after my family.” Can you see the problem?

This week, you have lots of opportunities to receive blessings, with holy relics and from holy priests. Confession is not another blessing where you just come up for a prayer. Confession is a conversation where you come to the priest and accuse yourself of what you’ve done wrong. In fact, let me make it clearer – in confession, you accuse yourself of the wrong choices you’ve made. You can be sure that something is a sin when you recognise you’ve made a bad choice and you know what the different choice is that you should have made and could have made.

Let me give you an example. Is it a sin to miss Mass on Sunday when you’re in bed with ‘flu? No!

Is it a sin to miss Mass on Sunday when it’s blowing a gale and you’re over 80 and can’t stand up straight against the wind? No.

But is it a sin to miss Mass on a Sunday because you’ve got unexpected visitors and you are too embarrassed to tell them you’re going to church, or to invite them to come to Mass with you? Yes! That’s a double sin – a sin of not honouring the Lord’s day, and a sin of not standing up for Our Blessed Lord against the opinions of other people! We had the choice.

There are times in our lives we really do need to go to confession. When we’ve made a terrible choice, perhaps under extreme pressure, and we need the relief of hearing the priest say that our sins are forgiven. Or perhaps we’ve truly committed a mortal sin – for some reason we have knowingly walked away from God, and instantly regretted it. For these times – and for the person who has suddenly come to their senses after many years away from God – your parish priest is always available on request.

But this kind of service, in a Mission week, is an opportunity to go so much deeper – we’re each being offered a spring clean for our souls. So let’s look deeply into our lives and prepare for a good confession by asking ourselves a few questions.

We are called to worship. Have we put God first in our lives by taking time to pray each day and each week? We also turn away from worshipping God when we look to other spiritual powers for help – that includes fortune telling, seeking to put a curse on someone, and any kind of ‘new age’ therapy that claims to cure you by tapping into spiritual energy. That would include things like bioenergy, reiki and reflexology. It’s important to bring these things to confession so we can be healed by the only true source of spiritual power – God’s Holy Spirit.

We are called to help in our parish and in the wider community. Have we given help graciously even what it was possible but inconvenient? Did we volunteer to give help rather than waiting to be asked?

We make our church community strong when we spend time getting to know each other. We make our faith strong when we take time to explore God’s Word and the Church’s teaching. This mission, but also the future of your parishes, depends on the people who worship in each of your five churches building up good relationships with each other. Have you tried to show good will to work together and get to know each other?

By our baptism, each one of us is an ambassador for Christ. Have we talked openly about our faith, even when we have been unsure how other people would react? Have we tried to invite anyone who’s not already a churchgoing Catholic to share our faith or visit our church?

There are other questions we might ask ourselves, too, but they always boil down to two roots. Did I love God with all my heart, mind and strength? And did I love my neighbour as myself?

We don’t have to go to confession for the small stuff. We don’t have to accuse ourselves before the priest of our smallest sins. We don’t have to become the very best versions of ourselves. But why wouldn’t we want to?

There are two more sins it’s really worth looking out for. One is the sin of pride that says: “I don’t have to go to confession, so I won’t.” The other – that’s the little sin you know so much better than I do. It’s that small sin, more of a peccadillo, that you don’t want to confess because it doesn’t matter that much… and besides, it would be embarrassing to admit it. And yet… what would happen if you did? After that moment of embarrassment would come an overwhelming tide of relief – and more than that, it would unlock some new grace in your life because Our Lord always pours extra help into our life when we celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation – the church guarantees it!

Jesus is asking you to clear out the obstacles. It’s a lot easier to trip over a small stone than a great barrier! Have you ever gotten a stone in your shoe and decided not to bother shaking it out? After a few minutes of limping along, you know you’ll feel better if you stop and get rid of it – so why not do that in the first place? Tonight is your golden opportunity.

Perhaps you’ve been to the kind of penance service where a priest has spoken absolution over the whole congregation without asking you to go to confession. It’s important to remember that the forgiveness God gives you at those services is on condition that you do confess any big sins you are carrying to a priest at the first possible opportunity. It’s not a way of escaping naming yourself as a sinner. And if you’re not sure whether the sins on your conscience are big enough to need to be confessed, I’ve got good news for you – if you mention them to a priest in confession tonight, you can be absolutely sure that, big or small, they will have been forgiven by the end of this evening.

Now, it’s true that to make a good confession, we also require a “firm purpose of amendment”. If we have recognised that our actions are sinful, we must do what is within our power to avoid sin in future.

  • If our sin is one of addiction, “what is within our power” may be to begin to get help, by attending a 12-step programme like Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • If our sin is one of being drawn into pornography, “what is within our power” may be to install blocking software on our computer, or confiding in a friend to be an “accountability partner”. If your problem is Internet porn, I strongly recommend a website called ClickToKick.
  • If you’ve given out your anger or haven’t let go of a grudge, it’s time to let go tonight. Let go and let God. Remember, Jesus said that showing anger – not feeling it, but showing it – is like killing your brother or sister in your heart.
  • If you’ve been drawn into adultery, then stop it – immediately. There is no excuse for a goodbye visit or trying to be “just friends” – it won’t work. Break that relationship tonight.
  • If you’ve been responsible for ending a human life, through abortion or in any other way, know that God can forgive you, but you must admit what you have done to the priest who stands in the place of Jesus.

God delights in our efforts to overcome sin. God will give us extra help to resist temptation, if we ask for this in prayer. But God’s love for us does not depend on our efforts to resist evil. God’s love is always there.

As you look deeply into your own life, what you are looking for is guilt.

Sometimes we suffer from false guilt, from our failure to achieve the impossible. We may have missed Mass due to a snowstorm, or had a ‘bad thought’ to which we gave no wilful encouragement whatsoever. But if we didn’t have the power to do otherwise, that’s false guilt – because what it is pointing is to is regret but not sin.

Sometimes we suffer from residual guilt. Perhaps we have formed our own opinion, which is not the Church’s opinion, about abortion, or contraception, or same-sex marriage, or weapons of mass destruction, or involvement in unfair trade. But after we have acted, or voted, in accord with our private views, perhaps then our second thoughts chip in. Do you hear that little voice saying, “but what if, when I meet Our Lord, it turns out that the Catholic Church was right after all?” Hold on to that thought!

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

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

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

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

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

True repentance means rushing to the Tribunal of Mercy and saying, “Father, I messed up again.” In return, God says, “I love you! And I forgive you again!” In this courtroom, mercy triumphs over judgment.

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

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

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

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

Are you are suffering from guilt?

Rush to the confessional.

Plead guilty.

Be amazed at Christ’s love in dying to pay the price for your sin.

Rejoice that God’s love for you is solid and unshakeable.

Plead guilty.

Be forgiven.

Best. Lent. Ever!

Hope and the Family Bond

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

Monday Mission Mass – Ephesians 4:1-6 and Luke 2:39-52

We’ve just heard from the Gospel how the Holy Family visited Jerusalem. Here’s another story about a family who did that:

A man, his wife and his mother-in-law went on vacation to the Holy Land, but tragically, at the end of the holiday, the mother-in-law died. The family were told they could bury her there for €200, but it would cost €5,000 to bring her back to Ireland.

The man thought about it for a while and decided to have her brought back.

The undertaker was surprised and asked the man why he was willing to spend so much money, when it would be so much easier to bury her in Jerusalem?

“Well,” said the man, “because it’s my mother-in-law, I don’t want to take any unnecessary risks. I mean, people say that someone buried here rose from the dead!”

It’s easy to become cynical about family life.  Mother-in-law jokes are bread-and-butter for many comedians. The weekly diet of drama and entertainment served up by our TV channels revolves around broken families, adultery, and violence. None of us come from a home where everything is happy all the time. Pope Francis knows that all of this tempts us to see the family as a problem. (Amoris Laetitia 7) But families are not a problem! They are a daily invitation for us to choose to “bear with one another in love”!

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that “you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” That’s wrong!

Now, it’s true that we can’t choose the mother and father we’re born to. The parents we’ve got are the parents we’ve got.

But in one very important way, we do choose our family. Every new household is based on the choice which two people make, to come together for life.

Out of that choice comes other factors which are beyond our control. Certainly, you might marry someone you find adorable, but they do come with in-laws. Pope Francis says this: “Your in-laws are not a threat! You are called to be generous to them – because this is also an act of love towards your husband or wife.” The Pope also acknowledges that each household is entitled to its own privacy. Respecting your mother-in-law doesn’t mean running your house by her rules!

Family doesn’t only mean the people who live under your roof. Some of us might live alone, but we all come from families, and we’re all part of wider families. Even if we have no living blood-relatives, if we belong to the Church we are part of God’s family.

There’s a clue in the very word family. F.A.M.I.L.Y. – Forget About Me – I Love You! [If that sounds like a rap to you, you’re not wrong – the rapping Franciscan priest, Stan Fortuna, sang this at World Youth Day Sydney in 2008.] True family only happens where your needs are more important than mine – and at the same time, you believe that my needs are more important than yours. That’s how we can meet in the middle.

I once met a young mother who’d spent a year studying Catholic teaching on the family. I asked her what the one most important message was that she would want the world to know. Her answer? “The best way to love your children is to love your spouse.”

Sometimes, when a married person comes to me for confession, I ask them, “When was the last time you went on a date with your husband or wife?” If they’ve had children for any length of time, they often struggle to remember. Even if all their children have grown up and flown the nest, they often haven’t got back into the habit of enjoying each other’s company. I’ve got news for you. In marriage, dating is not an optional extra! That means taking time to communicate anew that you love one another – but also to listen to one another.

Pope Francis knows that the way we do family is changing. In past ages, it would have been normal for a husband to go out to work and make the big decisions, and for a wife to do all the housework. Now, the Pope notes, there’s a more equal sharing of responsibility, and better communication between husband and wife. And communication is key! No matter how much you think you’re in the right, take time to listen to the other person’s point of view. Don’t raise awkward ideas needlessly, or speak in a tone of voice which could cause offence. And since you also have to live with the person you’re disagreeing with, never forget to use the words “please”, “thank you”, and “sorry” every day!

Remember, you can choose your family. You can choose your husband or wife! You can choose to give time and attention to your children! You can choose to say, “I love you” in whichever way works best for you! And as often as you can carve out the time, you can choose to go on a date! If something is important, we choose to make time for it – and at the heart of every marriage is your declaration that nothing is more important than your significant other. The Lord is calling you to true love – to make that effort.

I’m not married, so I want to borrow a final thought from George Dalton, a Christian writer who is:

I never look at my wife without saying a prayer of thanksgiving for her wonderful parents.   Have I always been the perfect son-in-law? No, do you think the apostle Peter was the perfect son-in law?  Probably not, because he was human just like we are, but we know he had a mother –in-law, and I’ll bet he loved her and honoured her.

Dalton invites each one of you to make a decision to show God’s love to all of your in-laws and awkward relatives. He notes that at first, if you change your behaviour, they’ll think you’re taking the mickey – but if you love them for long enough, they’ll realize that you really mean it!

Shepherding the Shepherds

Homily for Charismatic Lay Leaders (CCLFC graduates) at SENT, Brentwood (readings of the day)

Never confuse a fruit with a seed!

A seed is something which will grow into a beautiful new plant… but the fruit is the attractive surrounding that makes the seed palatable. You probably wouldn’t want to eat a seed on its own… and it would be very bad for the seed if you could digest it before it could find a place in the soil. So the seed is wrapped it in a beautiful sugary sweet colourful attractive wrapper… who could resist such a gift?

Our Lord said that “by their fruits we shall know them” so let’s look at the fruits we see in the Catholic Church around us today in England. Alas, the fruits are not that good! What does a normal parish look like?

It’s normal that around 5 out of 6 of the people who say they’re Catholics don’t go to Mass – and that includes the teachers in our Catholic schools.

It’s normal that almost everyone who presents a baby for baptism stands up in church and makes a promise that they will “raise the child Catholic” but have no intention of keeping the child connected with the parish community.

It’s normal that a parish priest has a vision for maintenance, keeping the familiar parish structures going as best they can with dwindling resources.

Our parishes are good at losing old people slowly and young people quickly. That’s a quick picture of a normal parish… so is it any surprise if we look around us at the state of the Church and feel a little depressed? Perhaps it even feels like we are sheep without a shepherd! You are here today because you have been formed for leadership in the church and in charismatic renewal. Now I know a few of you have some great stories of co-operation but often enough it seems that priests just don’t want to know about the Gifts of the Spirit or what you would like to offer to your parish. And if you weren’t already feeling powerless enough, then there is this reading from Hebrews 13:17 – “obey your leaders”! Oh no! Do we have to?

Sometimes it’s good to look at what underlies the Bible passage. I had a dim recollection that in Latin obaudio means “to listen” as much as it means “to do what you’re told”. But the Bible was written in Greek… so what is this word that has been translated for us as “obey”? In the Greek it’s “peithesthe” so I looked that up in a Bible reference book. It turns out the same word has a number of meanings… persuade… make friends with… seek to influence… very different from “obey” or “do what you’re told”. Now certainly another Greek word later in the sentence does means “submit to what your leaders asked of you” but these are two hugely different sentences: “obey and submit” or “persuade and submit”! “Persuade and submit” suggests you could be in a dialogue with the leader of your parish trying to convince him that there is a better way but being willing to accept his leadership while the conversation is ongoing.

Brothers and sisters: you may have read from the Scriptures that “without a vision the people perish”. But it’s worse than that… without a vision the people form… a parish! Now, in my years working as a priest among priests, I’ve realised that what priests do is this: they imitate what they’ve seen generations of priests do before them. It’s part of our human condition that few of us pick up a textbook and apply it; most of us look for heroes and role models. Even when a priest has spent five or six years in seminary, probably at the back of their minds is a model of their own parish priest, or some priest they’ve admired as they’ve grown up or who has drawn them into the priesthood. Sometimes that’s a priest with the heart of a pastor caring for people’s wounds but not wanting to challenge them; sometimes it’s a priest with a hunger to work for social justice projects; or perhaps, especially with some of our younger priests, they reflect on a priest who gave them a strong sense of identity, because he was willing to goes against the tide of public opinion, or insisted on using a bit of Latin – even a lot of Latin!  – when he celebrated Mass in public.

Sometimes it feels like our parish priests are shepherds without a shepherd. Where has the wider leadership of the Church offered them any concrete vision beyond: “Don’t lose too many people, keep sending a third of your collection for the running costs of the diocese, and don’t rock the boat?”

I wonder how many priests have a vision what their parish could be if they were open to all the gifts God was offering? At the start of the sermon I talked about what is “normal” in our parishes, in the sense of our common experience. I’d now like to talk about what could be normal – using the word normal in another sense, that of setting a norm or standard that we should aspire to.

It’s not uncommon that I read a book that makes me laugh out loud, especially if it’s by Terry Pratchett… but it’s rare that I read a book that makes me whoop for joy. About six years ago I read Sherry Weddell‘s book Forming Intentional Disciples. That book is a masterclass of how we encourage people to become followers of Christ and active members of the church… but that’s not what I’m going to focus on today. I want to share another thing that Sherry wrote, which made my heart sing for joy. In her youth she spent time with a group of other young enthusiastic Catholics and together they agreed on this description of what a normal parish looks. When I read this, for the first time since I became a Catholic in 1990, I rejoiced. At last, here was someone else who “got it”! I wasn’t the only person in the world who believed a parish should be like this! Sherry and her group agreed on seven “norms” for a Catholic parish. I’m going to put them up on the screen, and some of you can read them out…

1. It is normal for lay Catholics to have a living, growing love relationship with God.

2. It is normal for lay Catholics to be excited Christian activists.

3. It is normal for lay Catholics to be knowledgeable about their faith, the Scriptures, the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church, and the history of the Church.

4. It is normal for lay Catholics to know what their charisms of service are and to be using them effectively in fulfilment of their vocation or call in life.

5. It is normal for lay Catholics to know that they have a vocation/mission in life (primarily in the secular world) given to them by God. It is normal for lay Catholics to be actively engaged in discerning and living this vocation.

6. It is normal for lay Catholics to have the fellowship of other committed lay Catholics available to them, to encourage, nurture, and discern as they attempt to follow Jesus.

7. It is normal for the local parish to function consciously as a house of formation for lay Catholics, which enables and empowers lay Catholics to do #1-6 above.

Now, my dear leaders of the church, how do you feel about a church like this? Is this a church you’d want to join? Is this a parish you’d like to be part of? I think it is… but how do we bridge the gap between the reality of the parish where you live and worship at the moment, and what church could be?

You are leaders. Some people lead with authority – but others lead with influence. You have a prophetic role to speak hope and vision into the lives of your parish priests. You can plant seeds of hope in the heart of your parish priest. But for him to accept the seed, it must be presented in a fruit he will find attractive. So, my dear brothers and sisters take compassion on our priests, and set yourself to teach them at length. But here’s the thing: don’t confuse the fruit with the seed.

If you want to plant a seed in the heart of your parish priest, this will take time. You must prepare the ground and then offer him a fruit that he will find attractive. We know lots of priests get suspicious about the trappings of charismatic renewal: for some, it is too loud or in-your-face, or unlike anything they’ve experienced in their own personal reality. Others don’t know how to handle prophetic and healing gifts as parish leaders. Some might dismiss it as too Protestant, despite the writings of all the popes since St Paul VI welcoming it as “a chance for the church”. Now, we can try and persuade our priests of the merits of charismatic renewal … or we can do something smarter. We can offer fruit that will interest them!

What sort of fruit will attract a priest? Well, someone who offers help with a project that the parish needs will gain a priest’s respect and trust. This will take time – so like Jesus, we have to set out to teach “at length”. I know at least two different parishes where people who are very involved in renewal won the trust of the priest by volunteering to clean the toilets or hoover the church. If you’re serious about your commitment to the parish, you will come with the heart of a servant. Today’s lesson from Hebrews does talk about good works. Now good works aren’t the heart of what we do but they are the fruit of a person committed to Christ, and they are a vital tool in gaining the trust of your parish priest.

Now comes the hard part. Once your priest trusts you, you must stir up curiosity in his heart, but without leaving him feeling judged or inadequate. A good way to do this is to share stories of parishes that are thriving… but letting him set the pace. Where do you find such stories? Let’s see what happens when you Google “successful Catholic parishes”…

Oh, look! 28,200,000 results – in less than half a second!

Now the trick is to drop what you learn into conversation and let the priest set the pace. “Have you heard about the Catholic Church which more than doubled its congregation in three years? What about the one which raised its level of engagement from 7% to 40%? Did you hear about many other churches that deliberately look for the gifts that are present in their members and then deploy them in the most appropriate ministries? These churches are going from strength to strength… so we don’t have to settle for being a declining church! We are called to be a church that bears fruit, in season and out of season… but when the shepherds have lost hope, you need to be the shepherds to the shepherds, and teach them at length until their passion is renewed and restored.

So remember: never confuse the fruit with the seed. Offer your parish priest the fruits that will make him trust you and listen to what you have to say. He will receive the seed of a “normal” church when he finds it surrounded with the fruit that he will find attractive. I know it can be tough being the only charismatic in your parish or just seeing the church declining around us; but dare to dream that it can be different, and dare to dream that you can do something about it. I can’t say it better than the Letter to the Hebrews (13:16):

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have;
God is pleased by sacrifices of that kind.

So share what you have received. But share it smart! Share it slowly! And you will renew the face of the Church.

Go and Jump off a Cliff!

Homily at the Sion Community Family Day, for the Fourth Sunday of Year C

“Go and jump off a cliff!”

You’d have to be very angry to tell anyone to do that! But there are times we can and do get angry with God.

Our Sion gathering today is themed around the Archangel Raphael, whose very name means “God heals” – but healing stirs up powerful emotions.

In today’s Gospel, as Jesus gives his speech, his listeners go from “speaking well of him” when he says “freedom is coming” to total rage when he reminds them of two miracles that God worked to protect pagans while the Jewish people were suffering.

In the Book of Tobit, which is probably a Jewish parable rather than history, we read of the good and generous man called Tobit who suffers years of blindness and a pious Jewish woman called Sarah who, through no fault of her own, is cursed with a demon who kills all her potential husbands. Through the intervention of St Raphael, healing comes to Tobit, and freedom and a happy marriage to Sarah, but not before years of suffering. The Book of Job, too, tells of a good and pious man who was deeply afflicted before receiving healing. Somewhere in the Gospels we read how Jesus cured, as a sign, a man who had been paralysed for 38 years – I’m sure he was grateful for his healing but also, in his prayers, asked God whether 38 days might not have been sufficient?

Last week’s Second Reading told us that some people are given gifts of healing, and some are given gifts of prophecy. This suggests that others among us are not given those gifts. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for healing anyway – but it does mean only certain people in the community will have a high “success rate”. And even for them, success may not come straight away.

After a long period of Bible study, a pastor called John Wimber reached the conclusion, that faithfulness to God required us to pray for people to be healed. He didn’t belong to a church with a tradition of praying for healing, but felt he had to do so anyway. He spent 6 months praying for healing at the end of all his Sunday church services, with no success. Then he got one. Then the floodgates opened! His faithfulness led to the founding of the Vineyard churches in 1982.

In my own ministry, I’ve prayer for a lot of people to be healed, but only seen a few tangible results. One day, I went to visit a friend who lived outside the parish: she asked if I would bring the holy oil to anoint her friend who was suffering from back pain. When I did so, two remarkable things happened: the woman in pain received a momentary experience of God’s loving presence, and the pain went away. Now in my twelve years of priesthood, that was only the second time that a remarkable physical recovery quickly followed an anointing, and the first time, as far as I know, that someone had a personal experience of God’s presence. That was six years ago, and I haven’t had a similar powerful experience since.

I once preached a sermon in one of my parishes telling that story to explore the mystery of the God who “heals sometimes”. I wondered out loud whether we limit the power of the Sacrament of Anointing the Sick by our low expectations; the Sacraments become more fruitful when celebrated in a community with strong faith. On that day there had been a small community of faith – the friend who believed enough to ask me to bring the oil, the sick girl, who was also a fervent Christian, and myself, a priest longing for God to do something.

What I was trying to achieve was to encourage the people in my parish to call for the priest and gather round and pray as soon as any family member fell seriously ill. What actually happened was one angry family spoke to me later: “A few months ago our granny died. We had gathered around her bedside and said lots of prayers. So now you’re saying its our fault for not having enough faith!” – and that family left my parish to go and worship elsewhere.

A few years later, I told that story at a Celebrate weekend. One of the leadership team came up to me afterwards, very worried: if I emphasised the importance of a priest giving the Sacrament of Anointing, it might discourage lay people from laying on hands and praying for healing! Now that wasn’t the message I was trying to give at all – only to say that there’s a time and a place for calling the priest, and it should become a more normal part of our Catholic life! Too many Catholics think the Sacrament of the Sick is only meant as a “last rite” to send our souls to heaven! But in fact it’s for any “serious” illness, one which creates danger of death or limits the quality of life.

There is also a very important role for lay people to pray for healing. There are two ways we can pray for a healing – one is to lay on hands and simply ask God to do something; the other is to ask for a prophecy to guide us. But if we have the gift of prophecy, we can only minister powerfully to the people and diseases which God speaks about – not to the other problems which are present.

Prophecy can also stir up hope and anger. I’ve been to many prayer meetings where people have received words for me; and many where they have received words for other people, but not for me. Plus, as today’s Scripture says, in our limited humanity, we can only “prophecy in part” – many people who pray for us will filter a genuine word from God through their own expectations of what they think God wants to say to us, or in the absence of a clear word, share their own wishful thinking. Moving in prophecy calls for a tricky balance of expectancy – we are called to be hungry for this spiritual gift – and humility: it’s a gift, and God doesn’t always give it!

So yes, healing and prophecy are difficult subjects. It’s hard to preach about these without stirring up strong emotions. How many of us here today know someone who has a testimony of receiving healing? How many of us have at least one person in our lives, now or in the past, for whom we have prayed long and hard, but healing didn’t come? The promise of healing stirs up hope and anger in equal measure. And how many of us have gone to a prayer meeting, hoping that God will have a prophetic word for us today, and come home disappointed?

We should be ambitious for the higher gifts – that God would work miracles of healing and give prophetic words through us. But this is dangerous territory! If we’re going to go there, we need a big dose of love. I’m speaking of the kind of love which is not selfish, jealous or resentful. I’m speaking of the kind of love that rejoices whenever a healing or prophecy comes, but takes no offence when it does not – or comes to someone else, or through someone else’s prayers. The prophet Jeremiah was told to “brace himself like a fighter”. If we want to see prophecy and healing as a normal part of our church, we need to be prepared for disappointment – and expectant of miracles. We need to be ready for other people to tell us to go jump off a cliff. But what we are really called to do is walk on water – and then means we have to fix our eyes on Jesus, wait for the sound of his voice and – when he calles – get out of the boat!


The End of the World (Christ the King Parish)

Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent, Year C at Christ the King.

“When will all these things come to pass?”

That was the natural question on the lips of Jesus’ followers when they heard these terrible predictions, and it’s a natural question for us to ask, too.

We can predict, reasonably well, when some disastrous things will take place. In fact, the word “dis-aster” literally means “bad star” and we know that one day, our nearest star, the Sun, will go bad. In about five thousand million years, it will run out of nuclear fuel and swell up, scorching planet Earth to a cinder, or perhaps even engulfing it entirely!

Five billion years is a long way away. But don’t relax yet! Some of the latest results from mapping the 300,000 stars nearest our Sun tell us that in just one and one-third million years, a passing star will cause thousands of comets to rain down upon planet Earth and perhaps cause other disruption in our solar system.

Cosmic disasters might be too far away to trouble our children’s children, but by the year 2080, it’s forecast that more than a million homes in the UK might be at risk of flooding, and our coastal roads and railway lines could be badly affected too. I talked about the environment a few weeks ago so I won’t go into detail again, but we can all do our bit by reducing the amount of energy we consume.

There’s another disastrous date to put on your calendar. 2059. That’s a mathematical prediction of when the number of people worshipping in this church will fall to zero, based on changing congregation numbers since 2009. Oh dear… we’ve only just celebrated being open for 40 years, and in another 40 years there will be no-one left!

Actually, my prediction may be a bit off. Christ the King Parish did rather well in holding the number of worshippers steady for most of the last decade, until the numbers took a dip when we lost one of the three Masses. So it’s not really fair to fit a straight line to data with a big kink at the end. But what we do know is that in most Catholic parishes, the number of people going to Mass is gradually going down. And Jesus didn’t call the church to shrink. He called us to go out and make disciples!

This congregation has a reputation for being very active in working for justice. It’s great to be involved with Foodbank and other projects. But what about the specific task Jesus left his followers – making disciples of all nations? Who in this congregation is actively asking, “What can we do to make our congregation grow? How do we help people who might leave, to stay? How can we ask new people to join?”

I’ve got good news for you. Some Catholic Churches are growing! The Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, grew its Mass attendance from 1500 to 4000 in a few years! The Church of St Benedict in Nova Scotia raised its level of parishioner engagement from 7% to 40% in a few years! And there’s more good news! If you have succeeded in really engaging parishioners you don’t have to appeal for money or volunteers – engaged Catholics want to give, and give generously!

Avoiding disaster may need us to make some painful decisions. If the way we currently run our church is causing us to shrink or at least stay static, carrying on doing what we’re doing isn’t likely to make us grow. Maybe to be more effective we should be pooling our resources with other parishes. For the time being, Christ the King is an independent parish with its own building, which happens to share a parish priest. If the congregation does shrink – and when you look at the age profile, that does look likely – the day will come when you can’t afford your own building. They say turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, but it’s chickens who don’t make painful changes to secure the best possible future. The day might come when difficult questions have to be asked about Mass times or even merging with other parishes. The Archbishop has already asked the parishes from Whitchurch thru Llanedeyrn to co-operate in what we call the Northern Arc… this is an informal partnership at the moment but things could change.

Even so, Christ the King has done well in recent years. Perhaps you’re not at the point where you need to think about a merger. Perhaps there are enough resources in this community to be able to invest in things that will make this congregation grow. So which of you are actively asking “What makes successful parishes grow? When can we learn from thriving Catholic parishes?”

Next summer, all the priests and deacons in Cardiff will attend a three-day conference with an American lay woman, Sherry Weddell, who had a brilliant idea. She studied the stories of dozens of converts who started out as non-Catholics and ended up as very active Catholics. What do they all have in common? Sherry found out, and if we understand how non-Catholics become active Catholics, we can become very effective at inviting more non-Catholics to do the same!

All across the diocese, parishes are now being asked to run 6-week-long reading groups to study Sherry’s book, which is called Forming Intentional Disciplesto try out some of the ideas, and send delegates on June 15th to a day when they can share their experiences and receive coaching from Sherry herself. That could happen here, if a few of you choose to start a study group and work on encouraging parish growth.

“When will these things come to pass?” the disciples asked the Lord. “No-one knows the day or hour except the Father”, Jesus replied, speaking of the end of the world. But as for when studying and investing in the future of this parish will take place – that’s up to you!