Famous in Heaven

Homily at St Dunstan’s, Woking, Day of Renewal – Saturday 7 March 2020

We believe in God.

Very familiar words… we say them every Sunday in the creed.

But believing is not just something we do in our heads, like Alice’s White Queen believing six impossible things before breakfast. To truly believe means to put our trust in something.

There’s an Indiana Jones movie where Indy has to be guided by ancient riddles. The texts decree that he can only survive by being penitent, walking in God’s footsteps and taking a leap of faith. He can’t see all the dangers ahead, but kneels down where he is told to be penitent – and deadly arrows sail harmlessly over his head. When he is told he must walk in God’s footsteps, he finds a safe path by picking out the Name of God from random letters on the floor. And at the end, it’s only by jumping into a seemingly bottomless chasm that he finds the hidden bridge which enables him to complete his quest – he literally took a leap of faith. At each stage of the journey, he has to entrust his life to the things he believes. 

Today the church celebrates two martyrs, Saints Felicity and Perpetua – a serving girl and a noble lady. They were believers in the Roman Empire, 200 years after the birth of Jesus, when it was still illegal to follow the Lord. Perpetua famously said to her unbelieving father: “Neither can I call myself anything else than what I am, a Christian.” They were two of the most famous early martyrs – indeed, if you look online you can find the writings of St Perpetua from her time in prison – and their names are two of the women written into the First Eucharistic Prayer. 

For those two saints, as indeed for many martyrs, being faithful to God meant answering the question “Are you a follower of Jesus?” when a positive answer meant death. For other saints, being faithful to God meant choosing to lay down their lives for others – most famously, St Maximilian Kolbe trading his life for a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz. Many more saints did not die for Christ but lived for Christ: they are examples of what it means to love one’s neighbour with self-sacrificing love. Most religions in the world teach some version of “treat others you would like to be treated”. Our faith goes much deeper – we are called to love our enemies, work for the good of those who have no possibility of repaying us, and offer forgiveness without waiting for an apology.

How do we know this? We have the Living Word and the Written Word of God.

Our Living Word is Jesus Christ. In the coming weeks we will hear once again the Great Story of how he lived out his message of non-violence and forgiveness when he was taken prisoner; how he healed the ear of the one of the servants who came to support his capture; and how he restored St Peter to leadership following three acts of weakness and betrayal.

Our Written Word is the Bible, a rich collection. In the Gospels, we hear what the Living Word said and did among us. In the Letters of the New Testament, we hear the thoughts of the Apostles on what it means to live as followers of Jesus. When we read the Old Testament, we are reaching back to a time when God had only revealed part of his plan, and did so in hidden and veiled ways through prophets and through the events of history.

We are blessed to be people of the New Testament – blessed but also challenged, because we know what the Living Word asks of us. Just in the short portion of St Matthew’s writing we’ve heard today, there are many challenges. We can use these as an examination of conscience, and if we find ourselves lacking, we can take the opportunity to come to confession this afternoon. But remember – a good confession requires a ‘firm purpose of amendment’. Often, when I hear confessions, I ask the penitent: “What are you going to do differently in future?” Always be ready to answer that question!

When did you last pray for God to bless one of your enemies?

When did you last do a good deed or extend the hand of friendship to a person who is in no position to return the favour?

Is there anyone in your life you do not wish to forgive? Today is a good day to repent of unforgiveness – for later in this very Mass you will pray in the words of Jesus: “Father, insofar as there is someone in my life I don’t want to forgive, please do not forgive my sins either!” Maybe that’s not how we say the Lord’s Prayer – but that’s what it means!

Following Jesus is not easy. For the martyrs, it meant being ready to die a painful bodily death. For us, it means measuring ourselves against God’s word. God calls us to do something difficult – but we are not alone! The word “believe” shares its origins with the word “beloved”. Because we’re loved by another person, we can place our trust in that person to be there for us – we can believe in our beloved. We can place our faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be there for us, because on Easter Sunday morning, we learned that the Father raised Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. We know that he is truly in Heaven sitting at the right of the Father. We only know that he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven because of the testimony of those first Christians, who paid with their lives for insisting that the news was true.

Saints Perpetua and Felicity were faithful witnesses to that love by the way they died. We can be faithful witnesses by the way we live – but only if we choose to live God’s way. So today I invite you to make a decision – don’t be a Catholic In Name Only. Don’t be a Sunday Catholic who turns up to pray for one hour a week and fails to think about God for the other 167? If you want to be famous in heaven, spend your time on earth seeking God’s will – and you will know the happiness that only God can give.

Wholly Holy

Homily at St Edward’s, Sutton Park on the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

“Be holy!”

To be holy is to live your life God’s way. But to be truly holy, you must live your life wholly God’s way. Sometimes the Church sets up role models for us – saints – because they show us how to live a life with all its facets dedicated to God.

Last year a man died, who was widely expected to be named as a saint. Jean Vanier, a Canadian, devoted his life to building communities for handicapped adults, known as L’Arche. But towards the end of his life, rumours emerged that he had groomed women who had come to him for spiritual direction. Quite rightly, the leaders of L’Arche quietly and professionally investigated these claims. Yesterday, they announced their findings: there was credible evidence that M. Vanier had manipulated and abused six women over the course of 35 years. This, of course, comes as a terrible blow for the members of L’Arche worldwide  – and it also means that despite his acknowledged “considerable good work”, Jean Vanier will not be acclaimed as a saint of the Catholic Church.

It’s easy to point the finger at a public figure who has been shamed. But you’ll know the old saying – when we point one finger, we find three pointing back at ourselves. So let’s look at ourselves. Lent starts this Wednesday, and to begin Lent well, we need to spend a few days focussing on what we might “give up”. So it’s time to acknowledge that bad habit you’ve been trying so hard not to notice these last few months. Maybe it’s something your husband or wife has been gently nagging you about. Maybe it’s something that makes your children uncomfortable. Whatever it is, you know what it is, because you don’t want to tackle it. You’ve been pushing it to the back of your consciousness. It’s not a big thing – but it’s your thing, and you don’t want to let go.

Jesus said: “CHANGE! And believe the good news.”

I’ve got good news for you. This Lent you can choose to tackle that little thing you’ve been trying to avoid. Be bold! Throw off your chains! Don’t give the Devil his satisfaction!

The Bible today invites us to “correct our brother” when he sins against us. But Jesus also told us to take the log out of our own eye before taking the speck out of anyone else’s. Lent gives us permission to correct our own faults. We know that to be ‘wholly holy’ we need integrity.

So I’d like to invite you to spend the days between now and Ash Wednesday examining your own life, and deciding what your Lenten discipline will be. It might be giving up something – or returning to a diet you’ve let slip. It might be giving up smoking or drinking, whether just for Lent or for good. It might be taking on an extra daily round of prayer, or a weekly stint volunteering in a social project. But pay attention to that small thing you really don’t want to tackle. It’s probably the most important one of the lot.

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.”

Today’s Gospel reminds us of something Jesus said, something which makes our Christian faith stand out from other religions. We’re asked – no, we are commanded – to be passionately committed to doing good for our opponents. But… what happens when you are your own worst enemy?

Do you find yourself really difficult to live with? Do you find it hard to love yourself? Do you doubt that you are a fundamentally good person, even if you do things you regret sometimes?

One in every ten people here today will suffer from clinical depression at some time of life. Maybe you’ve already experienced this, or are being afflicted by it right now. Loosely speaking, the sign of being clinically depressed is that you feel sad, hopeless and lose interest in things you used to enjoy – and these feelings continue for a period lasting more than a few days.

If you find yourself in this situation, there’s no shame in getting help from your doctor. Often your doctor will recommend some kind of “talking therapy”, but sometimes the treatment will include antidepressant medicine. There’s no reason to feel ashamed of that, either. If you were an insulin-dependent diabetic, you wouldn’t hesitate to take that injection to restore the right chemical balance. If your doctor prescribes antidepressants, that’s doing just the same kind of job, restoring a temporary imbalance in those body chemicals which affect your mood.

We might not need medical help, but find support in prayer. Many Bible passages remind us who we are in Christ: we are loved beyond imagining by a God who died to know us. We can also find many affirming passages in the Bible we can repeat to ourselves in daily prayer: I am God’s workmanship (Eph 2:10); I am a new creature in Christ (2 Cor 5:17); I am raised up with Christ and seated in heavenly places (Eph 2:6; Col 2:12). Or we might take comfort in the traditional Acts of Faith, Hope and Charity in many traditional Catholic prayer books, such as this Act of Hope:

O Lord God,

I hope by your grace for the pardon

of all my sins

and after life here to gain eternal happiness

because you have promised it

who are infinitely powerful, faithful, kind,

and merciful.

In this hope I intend to live and die.

Amen.

What I’ve just shared won’t apply to everyone. But if you find that these kind of prayers are useful to give yourself daily reassurance, then use them as often as you need to!

“Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.” In that one part of your life where you know, deep down, you are your own worst enemy, show a little love. Even if you don’t feel lovable, be kind to yourself. After all, God loves you – loves you enough to die for you – and God doesn’t make mistakes. And keep on loving yourself, until “love your neighbour as yourself” starts looking like the challenge it’s meant to be!

The Challenge to Change

Homily at the Sion Community Family Day for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2019.

Today, I want to talk about someone whose lifestyle seems a bit extreme, and whose message makes us feel uncomfortable. Someone we might admire from a distance but might not want to get too close to. Someone people in authority either criticise, or want to be seen alongside.

I’m talking, of course, about Greta Thunberg.

In case you need a reminder, she’s a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who’s become the figurehead of the climate strike movement – older school pupils protesting that politicians and responsible adults need to act quickly for the good of our planet. Because of her deeply-held principles she is a vegan and refuses to travel by highly-polluting vehicles like aeroplanes or ocean-going ferries. This became a problem when she was invited to address the United Nations in New York, until the crew of a yacht volunteered to sail her across the Atlantic. She’s just arrived in Spain, after another yacht trip – a climate conference which was supposed to be in Chile was moved to Europe at short notice!

Someone like Greta Thunberg provokes strong reactions, but different people react in different ways.

“You’re just wrong.” Does Greta really understand what’s going on with our planet? Some say there’s simply not enough evidence for climate change driven by human use of coal, oil and gas. As a scientist, I know that with something as complex as the climate, we might never be able to prove that our actions are responsible beyond reasonable doubt – but I think we can say that on the balance of probabilities, if we go on as we are, our only planet will be in big trouble during my lifetime. 

“I don’t want to admit you’re right.” That’s called denial. If Greta is right, we all need to make significant lifestyle changes, eating less meat, consuming less energy, living a more simple life. These things aren’t easy. And when someone’s asking you to do something difficult, it’s a natural reaction to attack the messenger. For instance, although Greta has crossed the Atlantic twice now by wind-power alone, some of the crew members of her yachts, there and back, had to fly into position to make it possible. Is that ideal? No, but there isn’t a scheduled yacht service offering regular carbon-free ocean crossings. It’s easy to criticise – but if that’s just a way of avoiding the real issue, don’t!

“I admire you.” It’s easy – indeed, many people would say it’s fashionable – to jump on Greta’s bandwagon. It’s easy to re-tweet her messages and even turn out on a climate protest waving placards. But we can fall into the trap of saying it’s somebody else’s problem. Yes, we’d like our politicians to ‘do something about it’. And there are some things they can do. They can spend our tax money on research into green energy and building more wind turbines, tidal lagoons and solar farms. They can regulate waste so that we recycle more and buy fewer carrier bags or disposable cups. These things will help in the long term. But beyond that, what do we expect our politicians to do? They could pass laws rationing our meat supply, and cutting off our electricity for 8 hours a day. Would we vote for that?

“I’m with you.” Ultimately, Greta will only be successful if she persuades us to make big changes in our lifestyle. Greta’s own mother, an international opera singer, sacrificed her lifestyle – no more flying – when her daughter asked, “Why are you stealing my future?” The Bishop of Salford, John Arnold, has just made a video where he talks about his own lifestyle changes: Don’t fly unless it’s unavoidable. Share lifts and use public transport when possible. Turn off electrical items which are on standby. Turn the temperature down and wear an extra layer! CAFOD (and Pope Francis) would add that we should shop for food grown locally; reduce – reuse – recycle; and simply avoid buying things we don’t need!

Greta Thunberg isn’t the only possible answer to my question. St John the Baptist fits the bill as well. Greta’s message is “Change your behaviour! The climate catastrophe is close at hand!” – and John the Baptist came declaring “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand!” Both of them are iconic campaigners for change – and both are wonderfully vague about what kind of change they actually want to see in our lives.

We can react to John the Baptist – and to the message of Jesus, which is what he’s all about – in exactly the same way people react to Greta. Some refuse to accept that Christian moral values have any relevance except for Christians who want to live by them. Others might point to the failings of the Church as an institution, or of individual Christians, to say that they’re off the hook. We might renew our Baptismal Promises and say we’re going to live like Christians, but then not think about what that means in practice. Or we could surrender and simply say to God: “Here I am! What change do you want in my life today?”

Advent isn’t Lent. Lent is all about identifying sin in our lives, as a preparation for the wonderful Easter gift of forgiveness. Advent’s something else. Perhaps Advent is the season which challenges us to ask not “What am I doing wrong?” but “What could I do better?” – after all, its climax is Christmas, the season of gift-giving and goodwill to all people. “Repent” doesn’t just mean “Stop sinning.” It also means “Turn your life around. Total change!” Isaiah presents us with images of the perfect Servant of God and of harmony in creation. St Paul’s letter to the Romans asks us to “think with one mind”. And since we’ve come together for a Family Day, let’s do just that.

Greta’s family decided together to make certain lifestyle changes. Jesus called a band of disciples together to learn to be his followers. In our families, and in our Sion Community houses, we can help each other, and hold each other accountable to the standards we know we ought to keep. So right now I’m going to pass everyone a slip of paper to write down at least one thing you could do. It doesn’t have to be about the environment – Jesus calls us to other good works, too! I’m going to give you some headings on the screen to help you think:

  • How could you pray together as a family?
  • What could you do to show appreciation for one another within your household?
  • How could you read the Bible together or study something about our Faith?
  • What could you do to bless your neighbour – and by that I mean someone you naturally come into contact with regularly, it doesn’t have to be the family next door.
  • What could you do to live a greener lifestyle?
  • Which good causes might you support financially next year?

I’m going to give you a few minutes now to think and pray about one thing you could start doing, either tomorrow or after Christmas. When you’ve written something on your sheet, I want you to give it to another member of your family or Sion Community household. Later today, or when you get home, compare your notes. Is there something positive we can help each other to do? As the saying goes: “We must all hang together, or we will all hang separately!” St John the Baptist warned us that we must change our behaviour because God’s Kingdom is close – a promise that we can make earth a little more like heaven, and a warning that God will be checking up on us soon!

Choose Wisely!

Homily at the Erskine Catholic Parishes, for the conclusion of the Sion Community MissionSolemnity of Christ the King, Year C.

David for King!

Our first reading is strangely appropriate today. Israel is looking for a leader, and although kings normally gain their crowns by royal birth, in this case the people are choosing a new king. And it sounds like they are asking three questions.

  • Is he one of us?
  • Is he successful?
  • Is he God’s choice?

The first question is the politics of identity. We rush to put labels on people so we can decide if someone is one of them or one of us. Rangers or Celtic? British, European or Scottish? Leave or Remain? Remember the Golden Rule – always treat Them the way you would like Them to treat Us – especially if you think they don’t deserve it!

The second question is about competence. Who will do a good job? Who do you trust? David was good at leading soldiers in battle… did that qualify him to lead a nation in peacetime? And what does a good job look like, anyway? Is it about keeping the ship steady or setting a new course? Most politicians fall from power when they get one big thing wrong – when Prime Minister Macmillan was asked about the greatest challenge for a statesman, he famously replied: “Events!”* How far do we believe in forgiveness and allowing someone to learn from their mistakes?

The third question is about values. This goes to the heart of modern politics. Over the last 50 years, Western democracies have thrown away Bible values in favour of “Do what you like as long as you don’t get in the way of someone else.” The State no longer supports our sense that there are certain things good people shouldn’t do. Worse, if we dare to ask our politicians to reflect these values, we may be accused of being illiberal and bigoted.

It might have come to your attention that there’s a General Election next month. Strangely enough, it was reported this week that the most common first name for candidates in this election is David!

It’s not the job of our church leaders to point you towards or away from particular parties or politicians, but it is their job to remind us of the questions we should ask before choosing which candidate deserves our vote. The Bishops of Scotland have issued a letter which you can take home and read this weekend. I’m not going to read the whole text here, but I can summarise the questions they suggest we ask of each candidate before we vote:

  • Will you respect that human life has a dignity not because it is wanted by someone, but because it is human?
  • Will you support married couples, and families with children, in decisions about taxes and benefits?
  • Will you provide fair support for poor people at home and abroad, and take account of the consequences of our actions for Earth’s climate?
  • Will you seek to eliminate weapons of mass destruction and restrict the sale of small arms to countries where they contribute to instability?
  • Will you respect the consciences of those who stand out because of their religious or philosophical beliefs, and tackle religious persecution around the world?

Today is not only the eve of a General Election; it’s also the close of our Parish Mission. For the last week, Sion Community has been working among you, reflecting and praying about what it means to be a parish moving from Maintenance to Mission. But we should look carefully at that word, “maintenance”. We can maintain something in working order, but most things decay over time – vintage cars can’t be used for an everyday commute. And if “maintenance” means keeping things running as they are, we have to face up to an embarrassing truth: what the Catholic Church is really good at across the UK is losing old people slowly and young people quickly. In fact, if we carrying on losing people at the same rate we’re only a few decades away from total collapse!

In my conversations with your parish leaders, I’ve seen the beginnings of an idea emerge. It’s the idea of a parish which is attractive to young parents with small children. So today, I’d like to encourage you to dare to dream. What if you changed the way you did things on the weekend to be as attractive as possible to these missing Catholics?

I know none of us like change. We’re probably really tired of elections right now, too. And casting a vote usually means choosing a package which combines some ideas we really like with others we’d rather not pick. In the same way, if we succeed in inviting lots of young families to be part of our weekend worship, we’ll be blending something we like – a growing parish, hooray! – with changes we might not like – different music, more noise, more unfamiliar faces.

Two sinners were nailed to crosses either side of Our Lord. One was only thinking about himself – he cries out to Jesus, “Use your power to get us out of this mess!” But that’s not the Lord’s way. Jesus does not seek to dominate, but to reconcile. The other sinner understands that on the other side of the pain, there will be glory. First, he needs to die to himself – he must accept that the way forward will be painful. Then, and only then, Jesus will bring him into the Kingdom of Light.

As he was being crucified, Jesus was the victim of negative campaigning. He was labelled as the powerless King of the Jews, mocked for his inability to get down from the Cross. None of us like negative campaigning when politicians spend more time attacking their rivals than explaining their own good ideas. So in our turn, let’s pledge not to be negative campaigners for the future of this parish. When a change we don’t like comes along, let’s look for the good reasons behind that change and say “I don’t like it, but I understand why we need to do that.” I estimate that you have about ten years to turn things around. You have been blessed with capable leaders willing to ask how to do things differently.

David for King! You have your own David in this parish, and he has gathered a good leadership team around him. Now the trouble with leaders is that there are only two kinds – the sort who don’t make changes, and the sort who make changes you don’t like. So I say to you: remember the words of St John Henry Newman, who said “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Remember the words of Christ: “The Kingdom of God has come near. Change, and believe the good news!” Trust in your David and his generals, to lead you in changes for the better, and when you can’t see the good in a change, give them the benefit of the doubt. Accept change, and slowly, this parish will begin to grow. Resist change, and it will stay as it is right now – not fixed, but gently declining. The choice is yours.

An election only happens once every few years, God willing. But at in this parish community, you have an opportunity to vote every time you open your mouth, every time you work with your hands, every time you type with your fingers. Each one of you has very little power over the future of the UK and over the future of Scotland. But each one of you has a tremendous influence over the future of this parish. Choose wisely!


* Not “Events, my dear boy, events!” as commonly misquoted, but more fully, “The opposition of events!”

Go and spread the news of the Kingdom of God

Homily at St Bernadette’s, Erskine, as part of the Sion Community Mission – Saturday Mass of St Columbanus (Isaiah 52:7-10; Luke 9:57-62)

“Your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.”

What Jesus Christ said to that man in the Gospels, he has said to his followers through the ages, and he says to us today.

We might be distracted by the stark rejection of the complaint that someone must bury his father! Surely it’s a corporal work of mercy to bury the dead?

The thing is, the man’s father was most likely alive and well. I don’t think Our Lord was suggesting someone should walk away from a family funeral to start being a full-time missionary. Rather, I see a man making excuses: ‘I have family duties right now; when my Dad’s dead I might be able to help.’ But Jesus often spoke of the need to place honour for our Heavenly Father ahead of any good respect for our earthly parents.

The Catholic Church has lived through different shades of opinion on how urgent it is to share the Gospel. At one extreme our ranks have included preachers with the fiery message that anyone who doesn’t become a Catholic before they die will be damned to Hell for all eternity – a message so unpalatable that even the Vatican has acted to rein in such opinions. This simply doesn’t fit with what Scripture says about ‘good pagans’ who don’t know about Jesus being saved by following their conscience. On the other extreme, in recent years we’ve been seduced by a comfortable but false idea that God is a nice, loving, nanny who will simply scoop up all his naughty children into heaven with a smile whatever we do on earth. That’s not true either – Jesus made it crystal clear that Hell is a very real possibility for those who cause ‘little children’ to stumble or who let their hands, feet or eyes wander to places they shouldn’t.

The Catholic Church often proclaims that particular people have become saints in heaven, but we’ve never made a definitive statement that a person has been condemned to Hell. What we can offer is a sure and certain path which will lead people to eternal life. Anyone who puts God at the centre of their life by attending Mass on Sundays and Holy Days – health permitting – and who strives to live out the moral values of the Catholic Church, making a sincere confession whenever they stumble, is guaranteed to end up in heaven. Now a soul might need to spend some time being purified in Purgatory first – but what matters most is the final destination.

We’re all going to die. That’s bad news.

Jesus proved there was life after death. That’s good news!

There is a possibility that souls can enter Hell and experience eternal punishment. That’s bad news.

But by following the teachings of Jesus given to us through the Catholic Church, we can be sure of reaching heaven. That’s Good News!

When we reach the gates of heaven, Jesus will look at each one of us, and say, “Why should I let you in?”

Don’t try saying ‘because I’m a good person’. That’s OK for pagans but it doesn’t work for Christians. We know what the right answer is: ‘Jesus, I know don’t deserve to come in, but I’m sorry for all my sins, which I’ve confessed and I trust you will let me in anyway.’ For that answer we not only get into heaven, we receive a rich reward for the good we’ve done on earth.

We can let the scholars debate the fine details of how and why people get into Heaven. Our Lord cut through all that by leaving us a simple instruction: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.’

St Paul travelled around the Mediterranean three times to do just that.

St Patrick and his generation established the Catholic faith to Ireland, and St Columba brought it, through Iona, to Scotland.

St Columbanus, whom the Church celebrates today, was an Irish monk whose mission was to people in the north of France and Italy.

In the 19th Century, many Christian missionaries from Scotland took the message of Jesus to India, China, the West Indies, and parts of Africa. Among them were two prominent Catholics, Agnes McLaren, a doctor in India, and Duncan McNab, who worked with Australian Aborigines. 

But there’s no need to go to distant parts of the world to fulfil what Christ asks of us. There are many people in Erskine who are not yet followers of Jesus – even among those who might call themselves Catholic. You’ve made a great start in this parish, using Alpha as a tool to spread the news of Jesus. Your challenge now is to find the right way to share Jesus – using Alpha and your personal conversations – with people who don’t come to Mass, people who may have no real Christian faith at all.

It won’t be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is. Maybe you have fields or jobs to tend to. Maybe you have fathers, or mothers, or children, who need looking after. God doesn’t want us to neglect our duties to our families, but neither does he want us to use that as an excuse for not doing something uncomfortable. And even with Alpha, there’s a danger it becomes a closed circle for insiders, when it is meant to be a way of spreading the message of Jesus to outsiders.

Remember the wise words of Archbishop William Temple, who said:

“The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”

And remember the even wiser words of Jesus Christ, who said:

“Your duty is to go and spread the news of the kingdom of God.”

Fear Not, Rejoice and Be Glad

Homily at St John Bosco’s, Erskine, as part of the Sion Community Mission– Friday evening Celebration based on Acts 2:1-11 and Luke 11:9-13.

When the day of Pentecost came, Our Blessed Lady and the Apostles were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. It appeared that tongues of fire rested upon each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak. A great crowd gathered, for Jews from many nations were gathered in Jerusalem for a festival. And yet each heard the Apostles speaking in their own native language!

On the Day of Pentecost, we see ordinary people empowered to do extraordinary things. What could be more ordinary than a fisherman, a tax collector, or a wife and mother?

Many times, Jesus had said to his friends and followers, “Do not be afraid!” Together, Our Lady and the Apostles had endured the agony of Good Friday and the ecstasy of meeting the Risen Lord mere days later. Ten days past, Jesus had ascended from their sight, telling them not to leave Jerusalem until the promised Spirit had come upon them. I wonder how they felt? Alongside the amazing news that Jesus had triumphed over death lay the knowledge that the same Romans and Jews who had crucified Christ might also seek the destruction of His followers. But the power which filled them on that Day of Pentecost impelled them into the public square, where St Peter addressed a vast crowd, and three thousand listeners were baptised and added to their number.

What about us? Could we do what St Peter did? Could we do what Our Blessed Lady did? Or are we bound up with fear? And which frightens us more – the thought of doing God’s work in the presence of scoffers, or the thought that God might trust us enough to call us and work wonders through us in the first place?

In August, 1993, three years after becoming a Catholic, I attended a summer youth retreat. I had one year left before I finished my degree, and I had to start thinking about what to do next. Of course, there were lots of options open to an Oxford physics graduate!

I was young.

I was male.

I was single.

I was Catholic.

So…

What about the priesthood?

No.

NO.

Definitely not!

The thing is, although I knew I was saying no, I didn’t know WHY I was saying no. What was I afraid of?

I think, looking back, I was afraid that Jesus was going to ask me to do something I probably wouldn’t like. I’d have to do it, because he was God. And once I said yes, I was going to be miserable for the rest of my life.

During that retreat, one of the speakers invited us to take a silent hour in the afternoon, so I found myself a secluded spot on a riverbank and began to ponder.

I believed that Jesus, as God, was the smartest being in existence.

I believed that Jesus, as God, was the most loving being in existence, and couldn’t possibly want anything for me that would be bad for me.

I called Jesus, “Lord”. If I really meant that he was my Lord, that would mean I was saying I wanted him to be the person in charge of my life.

So… if Jesus is smarter than me, if Jesus will never choose anything which is not in my best interests, and if the Bible encourages me to call Jesus, “Lord”, I was faced with only one inexorable, inescapable, and incontrovertible conclusion: YES to everything.

So I prayed. And my prayer went something like this: “Jesus, I believe you are who the Bible says you are. I believe you love me and have my best interests at heart. From today onwards I will go where you ask me to go, do what you ask me to do. Whatever you ask – if you make it clear what you want, I will do it – even if it is the “priest thing”.

Well, back then it wasn’t the “priest thing”. I ended up in working in Nottingham on a gap year and then at Cardiff University for my PhD. But in 1997, the Lord showed me that it was time for the “priest thing” and here I am today.

Yes, 1993 was a key year in my life. Two things happened which changed the course of my life. I’ve just told you about the second one, when I said yes to Jesus and yes to priesthood. But four months earlier, actually during a visit to Scotland, I said “Yes” to the Holy Spirit.

On Monday I shared with you the story of how I become a Catholic. I read my way into the Catholic faith… and I spent time reading about other kinds of Christians too. I read about how the Pentecostal Churches started at the beginning of the 20th Century. I read about how large numbers of Catholics started experiencing similar things in the late 1960s – praying in tongues; laying hands on people who then experienced healing; and receiving prophetic words, knowledge that seemed to come from God and blessed the people who heard it. And of course, I read the Bible itself which showed us that prophecies and healings and praying in strange tongues were quite normal for St Peter, and for the early apostles and church leaders.

Now it’s one thing to encounter these things in books – quite another in real life. At Oxford, there was a student in my college who became a good friend. Sometimes we prayed together, and she made strange noises. So one day I asked her, “Cathy, those sounds you make when you’re praying – is that what they call praying in tongues?” She said it was. A few weeks later I asked her to lay her hands on me and pray for me to receive the same gift, so she came to me and prayed – and… nothing happened.

Well, almost nothing. I did have a sense of God whispering to my heart “Yes, but not yet.” A few weeks later, I was in Edinburgh for a science conference, and I popped into a local Catholic bookshop, Harkins of the Mound, where I spotted a book I’d been seeking for ages. This book, a volume on prayer by a Jesuit priest, had one chapter which spoke to me powerfully. It set out what you should do if your prayer life felt blocked, if it was dominated by just one big thing.

That was exactly where I was that Spring. I’d fallen in love for the first time in my young life, but not only did the woman in question turn out to be dating someone else, but even worse, she was on the brink of abandoning her Catholic faith! For weeks my only prayer had been: “Lord, if I can’t marry her, at least give her her faith back!”

Guided by the prayerbook, I knelt down that evening and handed over my burden to God. “Lord, I realise that I am holding on to this person, and it’s not right that she is the only person I pray for. So I am going to put her in your hands now. She’s your responsibility, not mine.”

The very moment I finished the prayer, I felt unbidden sounds arising on my lips, and I prayed in tongues for the first time. Later, Cathy took me to a large prayer meeting with more than 100 Catholics praying that way. I’m sharing this so you know that even if you’ve never come across it yourself, there are lots of Catholics out there for whom praying in tongues is an ordinary thing. Even the newly appointed Catholic Archbishop of Southwark had admitted that he prays that way – and an even more famous Christian who says he prays in tongues is Justin Welby, the current Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury!

There are many gifts much more important than tongues, of course. St Paul says the greatest gift the Holy Spirit can give us is prophecy, the ability to know what God wants to say to a person. Sometimes that’s a word of encouragement which touches a person’s deepest needs at that moment. Other times it’s a word of information, something the person speaking couldn’t have known by natural means, as proof that it really is God who is speaking and wanting to bless the listener.

A few months ago, one of the members of Sion Community asked me to pray with her, to receive the gift of prophecy. I gladly did that, but then I did something she wasn’t expecting. “Ask God to show you something to share with me, right now!” So she stopped, and prayed, and an image came to her mind, which was the exact same thing I’d asked someone else in the Community to pray about for me just ten minutes earlier! The Holy Spirit loves to bring us gifts, but often waits to be asked.

The Holy Spirit also brings us the gifts which our young people learn about for Confirmation: Courage and Wisdom, Knowledge and Endurance, Good Advice, Piety and Fear of the Lord. Now ‘fear of the Lord’ doesn’t mean quaking in our boots being afraid that God will punish us if we don’t do His bidding. Rather, it means a healthy respect for who God is and a willingness to obey his will.

If we have a healthy respect for God, a genuine fear of the Lord, we won’t be afraid to lift our hands in the air and sing his praises.

If we have a healthy respect for God, a genuine fear of the Lord, we won’t be afraid to lay our hands on one another and pray for healing of our ills and a deeper experience of God’s power.

If we have a healthy respect for God, a genuine fear of the Lord, we won’t be afraid to use our lips for whatever sounds God may place on them, be that prayers in unknown tongues or words of affirmation in human language.

In our broken humanity, we do fear the unknown. This is why Jesus reassured us that our Heavenly Father will only give us good things, and the best gift of all is the Holy Spirit.

I shared with you on Wednesday, how my old headmaster would address me solemnly and declare that he was expecting Great Things of me! Our Lord was even more challenging to his followers. In John 14 we read that Jesus said: “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father!” Jesus then promised to send the Holy Spirit as our Helper.

I’ve been watching a new medical drama recently, called New Amsterdam. A dynamic doctor has been appointed as the Medical Director of a busy public hospital, but instead of spending most of the time in the boardroom, he puts on his scrubs and spends as much time as possible treating patients. His catchphrase, whenever he walks on to a ward, is “How can I help?” And his name? He is Dr Max Goodwin! He certainly seeks the maximum number of good outcomes for his patients! But he can’t do it all himself. By the end of the series he has inspired his colleagues to be like him. They are no longer constrained by the way the hospital used to run. If there’s a better way to do things, they can do it. We know he’s had an impact when his colleagues start asking, in their turn, “How can I help?”

God loves to be asked to help. In the Gospel we heard this evening, Jesus said: “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” When St Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the gifts of the Spirit, he said that we should eagerly desire the gift of prophesy – and what would we do if we desired it, if not to ask the Giver of all Good Gifts to grant it to us?

In our prayer this evening, we will have an opportunity to ask God to pour out the Holy Spirit’s gifts upon us. On the table at the front, we’ve laid out some of the gifts you might ask for – gifts of character to embolden us to do God’s work, and spiritual gifts which only God can grant to make us His helpers on earth. So you’ll be able to come and look at the gifts on offer, and see which one or two are your heart’s desire this evening. I can’t promise that you will receive the gift you most desire, because these are gifts, freely given by God as God pleases. But I do know that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to those who ask.

You might need to deal with fears and blockages first. If you are afraid of what God might ask, just ask yourself, as I did, if you can trust God and if God doesn’t have your best interests at heart. If there is some obstacle in your life, some hurt or anxiety getting in the way, give it to Jesus – he wants to carry your burden upon his Cross. But remember the Mission Prayer you have been praying to prepare for this week. Open your lives to joy. Open your arms to your brothers and sisters. Open your hearts to the Holy Spirit, for tonight, there is nowhere he would rather be.

So come! Come and select one or two gifts which stir your heart this night. And bring your gift token forward to the brother and sister who will stand at the front to pray with you, asking the Holy Spirit to grant what you ask. Fear not, rejoice, and be glad, for it has pleased the Father to give you the Kingdom and fill you with his Holy Spirit!

The House of Worship

Homily at St Bernadette’s, Erskine, as part of the Sion Community Mission– readings for Friday of the 33rd Week of Year 1.

That day in Jerusalem, Our Lord Jesus asked whether the Temple was being honoured as a House of Prayer. But today, in Erskine, I ask you whether this church is a house of WORSHIP?

Worship isn’t quite the same thing as praying.

When we hear the word “praying” we usually think about praying “for” something – asking God for help. In fact, the very word “pray” comes from Old French and Latin words meaning “to ask”.

It’s good to ask God for help. But “worship” means something bigger than that. Worship comes from an Old English word meaning “you are worthy”!

As a priest, I get lots of thank-yous but very few personal compliments. When I’ve conducted a wedding or funeral, I quite often get a nice thank-you card; and a “thank-you” is about the things I’ve done to help other people. But a compliment is different. It’s someone commenting about who I am.

A couple of years ago, I was visiting a close friend, who suddenly said – “if you lost a bit of weight, you’d be quite handsome”. Well, she was right! At least about the first part! Or when I was still training to be a priest, I did some work in a school in South Wales, and one of the pupils thanked me for something and then said “You’re very good at what you do, sir!” I was floating for the next six months on the simple honesty that only a small child can give!

Now, this sermon is not about me, and please don’t think I’m fishing for compliments! But I’m sharing these stories because when someone says something personal like that, it creates a powerful and positive memory – something you’ll remember for years afterwards. So don’t miss out on the opportunity to give someone you love a personal compliment.

But why should we worship God? God is love. God is perfect. God doesn’t need us to pay him compliments to make him happy.

One reason is that God deserves it. God is worthy! If we pay compliments to people we see good in, how much more should we give praise to God! This is why it’s written into the Mass that when the priest says “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” we all reply. “It is right and just!”

Another is that God commands it. The first great commandment that Jesus Christ gave us is to “love God with all your heart and soul and might and strength”. One way we express this is by singing – and today is St Cecilia’s Day, when we celebrate the patron saint of music. I know that the music group in this parish has been introducing new kinds of songs in this parish; maybe you’ve noticed the difference between the old familIar songs that sing about me (‘Here I am, Lord!’) and what we call ‘worship songs’ that focus on God (‘Bless the Lord, O My Soul!’).

Why else should we worship? It’s good for us! The famous prayer of St Francis notes that “in giving, we receive”. If we are the kind of people who choose to give praise to God, we will become shaped more like holy people, and be more receptive to the special help, called grace, that God wants to offer to us.

Yet another reason (don’t worry, I’m not going to give you 10,000 reasons!) might be that, if we choose to stop worshipping, we sense we are missing out on something. I remember that when I was about nine years old, I decided to stop going to Sunday School – my parents didn’t insist that I went. But after three weeks I had such an uncomfortable sense that I was missing out on something, I asked to start going again!

Worship comes naturally when we’ve fallen in love with God. This is why the Jews gathered by Judas Maccabeus and his brothers gathered in their thousands at the Temple in Jerusalem, rising at the crack of down and bowing low in worship. Yes, it was also a celebration of their hard-won freedom, and they showed their joy by playing raucous musical instruments! But they longed to obey God’s law once again and offer sacrifices in the Temple.

If St John Bosco’s or St Bernadette’s is your church, you will treat it as you please and you will work to keep it just the way you like it.

But if a building is God’s Church, you will ask what should happen there to serve God’s purposes. You might change the way you use the building. You might change the kind of music you sing there. You might even ask if it’s the right place, at the right time, to serve what God is asking you to do in Erskine right now. And to ask a question which puts God, and God’s work, at the centre, would be a great act of worship indeed!

Hammer Away for Our Faith!

Homily at St John Bosco’s, Erskine, as part of the Sion Community Mission – readings for Thursday of the 33rd Week of Year 1.

A senior advocate was training a new pupil on what to do in the courtroom. “When you have the law on your side, hammer away with the law. When you have the facts on your side, hammer away with the facts.”

“Yes,” said the student, “but what should I do if neither the facts nor the law are on my side?”

“Then,” said the advocate, “Hammer away on the table!”

Friends, being a Catholic in Britain at this time means that the law is not always on our side, even though the facts are.

The fact is, a pregnant woman gives birth to a human baby. That baby doesn’t start being human at some point in its development; it is human from the first moment of its being. The law gives some grudging respect to this by allowing doctors and midwives to refuse to perform abortions; but here in Scotland, two midwives who didn’t want to supervise their junior colleagues giving abortions lost their jobs, and the law said that was fair.

The fact is – indeed, we call this one of the facts of life – that a healthy man and a healthy woman can produce a baby and start their own family. Today, modern medicine has made it possible to change who we are. If you don’t feel right about the body you were born with, you can ask for surgery and medication to make your body appear like the opposite sex. And if you want to contribute to making or carrying a baby without doing it the way nature has provided for millions of years, medicine can find a way of doing that too. The law now says that what you want is more important than what you are.

In our first reading, we see what happens when the state gets involved in religious worship. “Don’t make your traditional Jewish sacrifices! Instead do what we tell you!” It was a way the Macedonian empire tried to assert control over the Jewish people. Mattathias is having none of it, and reacts violently! In fact, this led to a revolution, and rallied Jewish freedom fighters to a successful series of battles – but we’ll learn the outcome of that tomorrow.

As Catholics, taught by gentle Jesus, we must walk a fine line here. We must stand up for what we believe without being oppressive towards others – and that hasn’t always been the case in the past when state law was tied closely to Christian values. Of course it is wrong for anyone who is exploring their own sexual orientation or gender identity to be denied a fair chance to apply for a job or access a public service. No-one should be treated with hostility, even when we fundamentally disagree with their lifestyles. It becomes even more complicated when that person is a member of your own family, when you are trying to support someone you care about without blessing decisions that you disagree with. But at the same time we must not compromise on our own God-given values. Jesus didn’t say much about these matters, but when he did speak, he said that God had set out His will clearly in the Bible: a man shall join with his wife and the two shall become one in a blessed and unbreakable bond.

The Scottish bishops are concerned that society is out of balance, and that political debate today has a very divisive tone. They have written a letter for churches this weekend where they note that some voices are trying to push religion out of public life. This touches on questions that affect us, such as whether the Catholic Church should still run schools in Scotland and have a voice on the committees that manage them. It also touches members of other religions – Sikh and Jewish men are required to cover their heads, and many Muslim women believe their religion’s duty to dress modestly requires them to use some kind of veil.

The facts are on our side. The facts of biology tell us that there’s a difference between what our bodies are and what some people aspire to. The facts of history tell us that some religions make clear demands on their members to present themselves differently in public – even we, as Catholics, observe certain days when we fast and abstain from meat in public as well as in private. Whether the law is on our side is a question for our politicians who make the law. With a General Election only weeks away, it’s quite possible you’ll come into contact with a politician before Christmas. If you do, please ask them whether they support laws which protect religious believers in public.

Shouldn’t a Muslim midwife be allowed to avoid abortion even to the extent of not helping colleagues to provide it? Shouldn’t Catholic pharmacists be protected by law if they don’t want to give out the Morning After Pill? Of course there’s a balance to be struck. Should a nurse be allowed to talk to patients about religion, beyond asking whether they follow a faith and want to see a chaplain? No. But should that same nurse be allowed to wear a crucifix or some discrete yet visible symbol of her or his own faith? Yes, of course!

Some religions require people to wear a public sign, so any law that says ‘hide that’ discriminates against those religions. And if we are really serious about saying Britain is a tolerant society where religious viewpoints as well as sexual identity should be respected, and indeed, celebrated, we should be rejoicing that we have religious believers who don’t want to be involved in abortion, contraception, or the nuclear arms trade, and we should make a point of allowing reasonable adjustments to accommodate this in the workplace. It’s become very fashionable for politicians to express their ‘pride’ in supporting LGBTQ+ rights. Shouldn’t we be proud that Britain has religious believers who want to stand out rather than fit in? The facts are on our side; the law is in the balance. So when you get the chance to speak to a lawmaker, feel free to hammer away – but use a gentle hammer!

The Comparison Game

Homily at Milton Keynes, for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

I’m not OK. You’re not OK. But that’s OK.

In today’s Gospel, Our Lord warns us not to praise ourselves highly, especially in comparison with others. If we do, we run all sorts of risks.

Earlier this weekend, I was at a seminar in Oxford University – a reunion for science graduates. The dean of the faculty was boasting of just having welcomed this year’s new intake of students, the ‘best of the best’ – each one discovering they were no longer a big fish in a small pond. That might be a humbling experience for the new undergraduates, but the department, already one of the best in the world, wanted to be recognised as the best in the world. A little later, 5 minutes into the lecture, one of the staff of one of the best faculties in the world stopped, apologised to the audience, and declared: “I’ve got the wrong version of the talk on the screen!” He then proceeded use a particularly nerdy method to first fail, and then succeed, to get the right version running. I think that was the moment the audience enjoyed most; and it reinforced what I had noticed in my student days, that the people who might be the best in the world at understanding how the world works are not always best at making the world work!

So when we praise ourselves too highly, we set ourselves up for a fall. But Jesus is seeking to save us from more than mere social embarrassment – he wants to rescue us from the terrible comparison game where we suffer constant anxiety from measuring ourselves against other people.

Now, in both sports and science, competition has its place. Few athletes set a world record which remains unbroken for decades; all athletes know that they will only be world champions for a short span of peak fitness. The unhappiest athlete is a silver medalist: while they kick themselves for missing out on gold, the bronze medallist (who wasn’t aiming for silver) is smiling at missing out on being placed 4th and going home with nothing to show for it. Only one person or team can be top of the league at any one time, and few can maintain top rank forever. So it is very foolish to pin our aspirations to being the best. Instead, a great question to ask, is “Did I do good?”

St Paul asked himself that question, and the answer was in the affirmative. “I have fought the good fight to the end. I have run the race to the finish. I have kept the faith.” Each one of us, at the sunset of our lives, will meet Our Lord Jesus face-to-face. We will find ourselves asking only one question as he gazes upon us’: “Did I do what you called me, personally, to do?” You’ll have heard the famous quote from Cardinal Newman, that God has created me to do some definite service not entrusted to any other person. That’s what matters – not that I was better than anyone else, but that I was the best version of myself.

There was once a town high street with three barber’s shops on it. The first barber, seeking to attract more trade, placed a sign in the window: “This is the best Barber Shop in Milton Keynes!” The second barber, knowing he had to be competitive, also placed a sign: “This is the best Barber Shop in England!” The third barber was a humble man, a devout Christian, and unwilling to engage in this kind of one-upmanship. But his business was losing customers. How could he respond without terrible pride? He thought and prayed for a long time, and eventually placed a sign in his window, and indeed his business went right up. What did it say? “This is the best Barber Shop on this High Street!”

I’m not OK. You’re not OK. We’re not OK because sometimes we make selfish choices – but when we realise that we can take our guilt to confession, and God will always offer us a fresh start if we seek to overcome our selfishness. We’re not OK because we sometimes have impossible dreams about who we should be; we feel ashamed of our inadequacy. But strangely enough, God loves us just the way we are, and Jesus died so that we could enter heaven.

God has high expectations of us. He wants to be able to reward us for doing exceptional good deeds. But we need to be clear about one thing – Heaven is where we get rewarded for the good we do, but going to heaven is not a reward for our goodness. So here’s one more story to leave you with. It’s about Paddy – a man who was very active in his church community, and died in his 70s.

When Paddy reached the Pearly Gates, he expected them to swing open in front of him. Instead, he was rather bemused to find St Peter standing in front of him with a clipboard.

“OK,” said St Peter, “here’s how it works. In order to get into heaven, you need 100 points. You tell me all the reasons we should let you into heaven, and I will add up the points.”

“Right,” said Paddy. “For starters, I have never missed Mass on a Sunday. Every weekend of my life, I’ve been at church.”

“Excellent,” said St Peter. “One point.”

Paddy’s face fell. “Only one?” he thought – but he didn’t say it out loud.

“I’ve always supported church,” said Paddy, “and ever since I started earning a decent wage I’ve given 5% of my income to church. And I used Gift Aid!”

“Great,” said St Peter. “That’s another point.”

Paddy was beginning to feel rather desperate now. What would earn him another 98 points? He had one more thing…

“I’ve always been a peacemaker,” he said, “stepping in to stop fights. And if I’ve been arguing with someone, I’ve always been the first to step forward to make up.”

“Wonderful,” said St Peter, “the boss is really keen on that sort of thing. That gets you another three points – you’ve scored five so far.”

“FIVE POINTS?” scowled Paddy. “For all that, just five? If I’m ever going to get through those gates, it will only be by the grace of God !”

At that moment, a fanfare played and the gates opened. “That’s the correct answer,” said St Peter, “only God’s grace is worth 100 points. Come on in!”

The Paddy story is not original! You can find versions online by Carey, Mascarenhas and that most prolific of authors, Anon.

Consider Moses

Homily at the Merthyr Catholic Parish for the conclusion of the 2019 Sion Community Parish Mission on the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Today, the Sion Community Mission in Merthy Tydfil comes to an end. Today, the mission of the Roman Catholic Parish of Merthyr begins anew, because the Lord has work for this parish to do. So keep calm, and carry on!

But carry on doing what?

Consider Moses. Today’s first reading is a brief episode from his life. Now, Moses experienced a few days of great triumph in his life – the day God spoke to him from a Burning Bush, the day when Pharaoh, King of Egypt, finally allowed the Israelites their freedom, or the day God spoke to him and handed down the Ten Commandments. But Moses also knew days of great grief – the day he became a refugee after killing an Egyptian slave-driver, or the day when the Israelites worshipped an idol, and he learned he would have to lead them through the wilderness for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land. But I expect during those 40 years, most of Moses’ days were the same-old same-old, getting on with the everyday task of leading a community, fed by manna from heaven. In the same way, the future of this parish will include days of great triumph, days of great grief, but above all the routine of priest and people gathering together, Sunday by Sunday, fed by the Bread of Heaven.

Moses didn’t receive all his inspiration directly from God, though. He also had to keep his eyes on the world around him. We’re told that whenever Moses raised his hands, the Israelites did well in the battle. Whenever he let them droop, they started losing. No prophet came to tell Moses he had to keep his arms in the air – he learned from experience which of his actions has a positive effect, and which had a negative effect. You’ve probably heard the saying that ‘insanity is doing the same thing again and expecting a different result’. One of the ways the Lord speaks to us is through reality – we use the eyes and the brains we’ve been given to reflect on the work that we’ve done.

So our question today, is where do you go next, priest and people working together? I can’t tell you exactly what you need to do in this parish, because it’s not my parish. But when I was training to be a priest, I did live for four months just west of here, in Aberdare. I met a lot of elderly ladies who belonged to the various chapels in the town. Those chapels can seat hundreds of people, and were extended after the great Welsh Revival of 1904. But now a handful of ladies worship there, and they use the back room because they can’t afford to heat, let alone repair, the main worship space.

I’m no prophet, but I’m going to use the brain God has given me to imagine three ways the future could unfold here. Some of us don’t like thinking about the future – we’d prefer to be an ostrich and bury our head in the sand – but Moses and his supporters had to imagine a better future so they could secure success for their people.

The first future is the one where you carry on doing things just the way you’re used to doing them.

We can get a bit superstitious about the way our Church works. We can relax and think, “As long as we baptise and confirm the children, they will come back eventually.” But that would be naïve. 50 years of experience is telling us that in most cases, they don’t come back. Moses didn’t say “I will let my arms droop, God will win the battle eventually.” Rather, his support team saw what was working and said, “We’ll keep your arms aloft for as long as it takes until we win this battle.”

So yes, we need to persevere and persist in doing what it takes to keep this parish going… but if we keep on doing what we’ve done, we’ll keep on getting what we’ve got. And what have we got? Not only in Merthyr, but across Wales, the Catholic Church is very good at losing old people slowly, and young people quickly. I’ll say that again: the Catholic Church is very good at losing old people slowly, and young people quickly. If we keep on doing what we’ve done, we’ll keep on getting what we’ve got. Is that what you want in Merthyr?

If we carry on with “church as usual”, the congregations in your four churches will continue to shrink slowly. The income for each church will go down as fewer people give. Now, it’s an expensive business, keeping a church open. I’ve been running parishes in South Wales for 12 years and I can tell you that each building costs around £15,000 a year for annual running costs – insurance, fire extinguisher servicing, other safety inspections and so on. And that’s before all the big, expensive jobs like fixing roofs and replacing gutters which have to be done once in a generation. So you will reach a point, like the pious ladies of Aberdare, where you have to have Mass in the sacristy or close the church altogether.

You can choose this future – you can choose to be turkeys hoping that Christmas will never come. But Christmas does come eventually, and turkeys never enjoy it.

The second future is one where you decide to make more efficient use of your resources, coming together in one or two buildings. That could be a new building, which would be a fresh start for everyone, or some of you could bravely choose to transfer to a church which doesn’t have the comfort of being your ‘home’ church. You could then use the annual running costs which you’ve saved to invest in the future of the parish – employing a professional musician or a children’s liturgy worker.

Making such changes reminds me of a flock of geese, migrating from one place to another. You’ve probably seen geese flying through the sky, in a V-formation. One goose is out in front, with the hardest task. That goose has to break through the air, creating a slipstream, and lead the others in the right direction. The other geese can honk from behind to encourage the leader to keep going. Only by working together and following the leader can the flock make a safe migration.

Today’s Gospel clearly points us to the need to be persistent. In preparing this homily I asked Canon Barry what the most helpful thing would be to keep the parish going, and he mentioned the need for more resources. So here’s a question for you. I can either give you a golden egg, or a goose that lays golden eggs. Which of you would prefer the egg? And which would prefer the goose? The egg represents fundraising activities. You can choose to pour your limited resources into fundraising activities – coffee mornings, jumble sales and the like – and yes, you will raise some money. Once you’ve spent it on building repairs you have to start over and do the same thing again. The goose represents missionary work. That’s harder to do. You have to look after the goose, and it might kick and hiss a bit. But if you pour your limited resources into inviting people who have no previous connection with the Catholic Church, or working with Catholics who have fallen out of practice to help them come back, then you raise the number of regular givers in the congregation – more geese laying more golden eggs!

Before I tell you about the third possible future, a story. One day an egg fell into a turkey nest. The mother turkey sat on the egg until it hatched and raised the chick. The chick followed all the other turkeys, scratching around for food on the ground, until one day a golden eagle swooped down from the sky. “Hello!” she said, “What are you doing down here? You’re not a turkey, you’re an eagle like me.” And for the first time in his life, the chick flapped his wings, soared into the sky, and discovered a beautiful valley below, filled with luscious food and beautiful things.

The third future is one where we ask some big questions. “What makes Catholic parishes flourish?” The good news is, there are Catholic parishes which are growing, some growing in strength, some growing in number. The best way to ensure that all four of your churches remain open is to ensure they grow. No bishop is going to close a church which is growing! I’m not going to tell you, from this pulpit, what those growing churches are doing right. This isn’t my parish, so I don’t know what would work well here. There’s a wonderful resource called the Internet which will let you find out about successful Catholic parishes, and use your local knowledge to consider which ideas might fit. But I can tell you that the places where parishes thrive are the places where the parish priest and the people are working together towards a shared vision. Everyone recognises that Moses is the leader, and when he is doing something that works, his support team members step in and hold up his arms for as long as it takes!

You have a Moses leading this community. His name is Canon Barry. The Catholic Church is not a democracy… just as God chose Moses, with all his gifts and all his weaknesses, to lead the Israelites, so Archbishop George has chosen this priest to be your leader. You might not like all the decisions he makes – that’s human nature. The day might come when he, or his successor, has to make unpopular choices about future arrangements. But your success as a parish depends on getting behind your leader, and, like Moses, giving him unwavering support. He is the lead goose on your spiritual migration, and he needs you to honk your encouragement. He needs the vision from the golden eagles among you who have time to survey the landscape and see the possible paths ahead. He needs you to find the geese who will join the flock to make it stronger. And above all, he needs your prayers and your practical support. Those of you who have hosted a member of the Mission Team know that during their stay, the missionary offered to pray with you for God’s blessing on your life. I’ve been staying this week in St Mary’s Priory. I’d like to invite you to join me in praying, now, for God’s blessing and strength for your Moses, your parish priest, Canon Barry English.