Urgently Calling

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

Before I became a priest, I worked closely with a man who was a full-time evangelist, promoting the Catholic faith across and beyond the British Isles. His voicemail messages were unmistakable. “Mr Leyshon – I need to talk to you! Please call me urgently!”

I soon learned that for my friend, “urgent” was his default setting. From anyone else, such a phone call would foreshadow a dying daughter or a blazing building. For this man, it just meant we needed to put a date in a diary. It’s easy to over-use the word “urgent”. And yet… today’s Bible readings are steeped in a sense of urgency.

Despite hiding for three days in the belly of a whale-sized fish, Jonah finally carried out God’s command and preached that Nineveh would be destroyed. Amazingly – perhaps hinting that this is more story than history – the people respond immediately and wholeheartedly, mending their ways, and keeping a fast. When Our Lord walks up to Peter and Andrew, and then James and John, they immediately down tools and follow his footsteps. The Bible doesn’t record what Zebedee thought when his sons abandoned him on the spot – and in that culture, respect for a parent counted for a great deal! There must have been something about the person of Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, which was overwhelmingly attractive, even when he hadn’t yet worked miracles or gathered a band of followers with him.

Last Wednesday was the feast day of St Anthony of the Desert. 300 years after Christ, he heard the Bible being read: Jesus invited a rich young man to sell everything and follow him. These words struck Anthony so powerfully that he did just that, moving into the Egyptian desert, first as a hermit, then as Abbot over the community of monks inspired to join him.

But what about us? There may be someone here today who is free to choose a new path in life, who can join a monastery or a convent, become a hermit or enter seminary to try for the priesthood. If you know that God’s voice is whispering to you right now, stop struggling against it, and have a chat with me (or another person you trust), about taking the next step. Whatever you’re waiting for, it won’t get better if you don’t do something about it!

For most of us, though, we’ve made the big decisions already. We’ve chosen to start a family – or not – and many of us have chosen a career in which we’ve invested a great deal of time and training. Yet within our chosen lifestyle, God does not stop calling us. And this can be irritating! If we take God’s presence in our lives seriously, we’ll find ourselves asking deep questions: How can I know what God wants ME to do? I wish I could be sure I’m on the right track…

Finding out might not be as hard as you think! Hasidic Jews tell the story of Rabbi Zusya, who said this: At the end of this life, when I am judged, the question I will be asked is not “Why were you not Moses?” but – “Why were you not Zusya?” The Rabbi understood that everyone has a call. God wants you to be yourself! And to be truly yourself, that means making the most of the gifts and talents God has given you. Blessed John Henry Newman understood this too, in his famous poem “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another… He knows what he is about!”

Sometimes we need a bit of help to see just what our gifts and talents are. You may have undertaken exercises in your workplace to find out what your Meyers-Briggs personality type is, or to work out your role in a team according to the Belbin model – and there are many similar tests. These results tell you something about yourself as a person – what do they suggest about the role that would be right for you in your parish community? I can’t give you all a test right now, but I can suggest some simple questions:

  • With unlimited resources, what would you do for God?
  • What is it, that you love to do?
  • How can you combine talents and passions to achieve your calling?

In a recent survey, 53% of Americans did not strongly agree “that in my parish, I have an opportunity to do what I do best”. Often we get drafted to help with a project because a parish is a small community where “somebody has to do it”. Church can be like one of those military movies where the captain asks for a volunteer and everyone else in the ranks take one step backwards! But in the best church communities, everyone offers their services and then there’s no need for anyone to be a square peg in a round hole – there’s enough slack for everyone to find a way in the parish to do what you do best.

Perhaps, in the past, managers have encouraged you to do something about “addressing your weaknesses” but surely it’s better to develop your strengths? We can acquire skills and knowledge, but perform best when these enhance our innate talents – and every single one of us has some set of natural talents. That doesn’t mean just sports or arts – “talents” are anything we’re wired to do well. We are not called to be “well rounded” – God didn’t make us that way, and a ball won’t stay put where it’s meant to be. God made each one of us with a unique set of things that we do do well, and God is calling is, urgently, to use them for the work of Christ – to love our neighbour and to bring everyone on Earth under the Reign of God.

St Paul’s strange advice about not laughing or mourning came from his belief that Christ was about to return and bring the world to an end. We know now that didn’t happen, so we face a different challenge – how do we use the gifts we’ve been given to live “in the world but not of the world”, following Christ? One way of doing that is being sure that when offered a choice of jobs, choose the one which plays to your strengths, not the one which one has most prestige. The happiness of getting higher rank will fade when you become used to it, but the joy of doing something you shine at will be renewed every day you work! And what’s true of the world is also true of the church. If you are already volunteering, are you in the right role? Perhaps there’s something that you and other parishioners can agree you’d be better at doing instead, and there’s no shame in asking for a change. In fact, if it helps you become the best version of yourself, God might be asking you to follow him by making that change right now. Urgently!

With thanks to inspiration from Mgr Bill Hanson, quoted in the Catholic Edition of Living Your Strengths, and other ideas from the authors.

 

Keep on Giving

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Solemnity of the Epiphany, 2018.

The wise men went to a great deal of effort to offer their gifts to the infant King. I wonder what motivated them?

There are all sorts of reasons we might give gifts. It can be a sign of friendship. Or we might be doing so out of duty because the office has organised a “secret Santa”. There again, we might give gifts because we expect to receive something in return. Were the wise men hoping to have places of honour in the court of the new-born King? Or was it a pure act of love? Whatever their motivation, they were willing not only to give expensive gifts but to expend a lot of time and trouble doing so.

The gifts we should think about today are not gifts of money or material things, but the time and talents which God has entrusted to us. The Bible leaves us in no doubt that God has high expectations of what we should do with such gifts. Is God saying: “work as my slaves, or I will punish you”? No! But God is reminding us that actions have consequences. As the philosophy tutor at my seminary once said, “If you consume too much of the blood of Christ, you will get drunk and you should be breathalysed!” If you’ve eaten too many Christmas puddings, you will have gained weight – that’s not a punishment for overeating, it’s just the way the universe works. Our eternal home is heaven, a place of pure self-giving love, and we can only enter heaven when we are a good fit for this – as St John of the Cross once said, “at the evening of  life, we shall be judged on our love”.

The Catholic Church’s job is to invite each one of us to become a saint, and to train us how to live saintly lives. Our church’s task is not to produce nice people, or people with hearts of gold, or people with good intentions; our mission is to produce saints, people of heroic virtue. People like St Teresa of Kolkata, who “give until it hurts” and keep on giving. People like the wise men, willing to go to extreme lengths to offer their gifts to God. The trouble is, we behave more like football fans than saints. Fans are proud of their team, they turn up every weekend, sing their team songs and feel the joy and the pain when their team wins or loses. But they don’t get involved on the pitch. And then what happens? The Catholic Church has been likened to a soccer game, with 22 people running round doing all the work and another 22,000 cheering them on from the stands. But Jesus isn’t looking for fans. He’s looking for followers, people willing to do his work on earth.

In my first parish, I preached many sermons where the message was “get involved”, and one day a parishioner came up to me and said “If you preach one more sermon about ‘getting involved’, I’m leaving this church.” Now he was a man with a disability. Maybe he felt that  he couldn’t do any of the practical things I was inviting people to do. I hope he realised that those of us unable to get involved with our hands can still get involved by our prayers. But those of us who can do more, should do more.

We  have barely enough catechists for our future needs to pass on the Catholic faith to adults and children. Later this month there’s a 2-year course beginning called the “Catholic Certificate in Religious Studies“. It’s a good course for anyone who is a catechist now or wants to be one in future. Could you study now, so you are ready to volunteer in the parish in two years’ time? We would gladly pay your course fees and even help with transport costs if that’s a deal-breaker for you.

More immediately, we need Welcomers. Did you know that most people decide whether they “like” a church based on their first impressions after they have been inside for a couple of minutes? If you regularly arrive at Mass more than 5 minutes early, what’s stopping you taking a turn at smiling at those who follow you through the door and helping hand our hymnbooks or newsletters? It’s a great opportunity for whole families, children can help too alongside parents. In two weeks’ time, I want to meet all our current welcomers after Mass, and I’d like to train some new welcomers at the same time. That could be you.

Today, we re-commission those who do serve in our community. Many of you will stand up in the next few minutes to renew your willingness to serve. I want to thank you for your service – but remember, you are not doing it for me, your parish priest, as a favour. You are doing it for Christ, as a follower, and to help your fellow parishioners become saints. But some of us will not be commissioned today. So I put to you: are you a fan or a follower? If you have a serious illness, or have your hands full with a small child, the parish expects nothing of you except your prayers. For the rest of you, imagine what would happen if you stepped forward to help our parish flourish? How much stronger would we be with your gifts?

There are good works we can do in the local community, as part of organisations which aren’t explicitly Christian. But today, I invite you to focus on your parish – because in your parish, there is no hiding place. No-one else is going to take communion to your sick brothers and sisters. No-one else is here today who can act as a welcomer, usher, collector, reader or minister of Holy Communion at this Holy Mass. If you have the gifts to do any of these things, God expects you to say “yes”. And if you are a visitor here today, and you’re not already volunteering for something in your home parish, I charge you to go to your parish priest next time at your home Mass and ask: “What can I do to help?” Don’t wait to be asked. Those who are truly wise already know that our King deserves our very best.

So arise, shine out, people of St Philip Evans! Become what God has gifted you to be, and you will set Wales on fire!

 

Expectant!

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B.

This parish is pregnant!A bronze angel appears to a silver image of Mary, kneeling, on a purple background

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

In the same way, we in this parish are on a journey towards next autumn, when we will launch our Parish Connection Programme, which will be both a way for us who worship regularly to re-connect with one another and explore our faith, and also the gateway to baptism, first communion and confirmation for parents, adults, and teenagers who wish to receive these sacraments. Like any pregnancy, it will involve uncertainty and pain. It will take time for the new programme to take shape. And once it is born, it will take time to grow to maturity. People of St Philip Evans, I will be relying on you to support this new project as you would support a mother with a newborn child. I have already been having conversations with key parishioners, and in the New Year I will be ready to roll out more information – but for now I ask for your prayers.

Not only is this parish pregnant, but today is ‘Expectant Mothers’ Sunday’. It’s a day to remember that the church welcomes all human life in the womb, and there are special ceremonies of blessing that families can ask for when a mother is pregnant. But there are also ceremonies we can use when such joy turns to sorrow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congratulations! You’re pregnant!

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

 


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

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

Cruse offers advice on how bereavement can impact Christmas.

The Service You Don’t Need to Go To

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B.

This Wednesday evening, there’s a special service for people who don’t need to go to confession.

Canon Matthew Jones will be going, Canon William Isaac will be there, and I’m going too. We’ll be hearing confessions of people who don’t need to go.

There are times in our lives we really do need to go to confession. 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 come to their senses after many years away from God – we run a weekly emergency clinic. I sit in the confessional every Saturday afternoon and Thursday evening. But that’s not why we run an Advent Penitential Service.

At this time of year, we’re challenged to look back and look forward. Television will be full of “reviews of 2017” and then we might make New Year’s Resolutions. Perhaps we’ll spend Christmas together with distant family members, needing us to resolve some longstanding disagreement. In this Advent time of waiting, what’s most important is to stop and take a good look at ourselves.

Don’t panic. Don’t be afraid. Jesus is already looking at you, and he likes what he sees. More than likes, in fact. He loves you. Whatever you’ve done, he loves you. He loved you enough to die for you. To us belongs the same good news Isaiah brought to Jerusalem – your sins have already been paid for!

There is one thing he would like you to do. Prepare a straight way for him to come to you. No speed bumps. No potholes. He would like to step smoothly into your life. That’s why we have an Advent Penitential. It’s a time to stop and look at the small obstacles in our lives that get in His way.

During the past year, we’ve heard a lot about the expectations Our Lord has of those who belong to his church. It’s always tricky when we think about things we ‘should’ have done. It’s much easier to know we’ve sinned when something is forbidden. But there are many things we ‘should’ do jostling for our time, money and attention. How much time should we have given to prayer this week? How great a gift should we have given to charity this year? How much time and money should we have given to our dependent family members? How much care have we taken of ourselves?

We can 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 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. Have we made good use of this year’s opportunities to connect and explore?

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 or faith or visit our church?

This weekend, Archbishop George invites us to remember the sick and retired priests of this diocese. These men chose to serve you and your fellow Catholics in years gone by, giving up the possibility of earning a salary or saving for a pension. When we priests make the commitment of celibacy so we can give our utmost to serve you, the Bride of Christ, the Bishop makes a commitment on your behalf to look after the financial needs of priests who become too ill or infirm to continue to serve. But Archbishop George can only fulfill your commitment using your gifts. Perhaps the new calendar year, or the new financial year, would be the right time for you and your family to take a fresh look at your planned giving to the church and other charities. So ask yourself: during the last year, did I invest a fair share of my wealth in God’s work?

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 make any New Year Resolutions. 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 one you know better than me. 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 embarassment 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! And although it’s tempting to limp on with a stone in your shoe, you know you’ll feel better if you stop and shake it out.

So, here’s the invitation. At St Brigid’s, at 7 pm this Wednesday, there’s a service for people who don’t need to go to confession. I’m going. Are you?

Doin’ the Right Thing

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

A Jesuit and a Franciscan sat down to dinner. On the table was platter with one large fish, and a smaller fish. As soon as the Franciscan had said grace, the Jesuit reached over and took the larger fish for himself. The Franciscan took the small piece, in silence. Aware that there was a bad atmosphere in the room, the Jesuit asked what the problem was.

“It’s just that St Francis taught us that we should always choose the smaller portion for ourselves,” said the Franciscan.

“So what’s the problem?” said the Jesuit, “That’s exactly what you’ve got!”*

We expect certain standards of behaviour from the people around us – and all the more so when those other people are religious leaders, politicians, or exercise authority in business or public life. During the last couple of weeks the news has been full of claims of people whose integrity has fallen short – first in Hollywood, then in our Houses of Parliament.

Human nature hasn’t changed much in 2000 years. We’ve just heard Our Lord calling out the Pharisees for making rules and then setting a bad example. The first reading dates from 500 years before that, when the Prophet Malachi condemned the Jewish priests of his day for not following God’s law.

St Paul, on the other hand, is trying to set a good example: for the last three weeks we’ve been listening to his letter to the Thessalonians, which is the earliest piece of Christian writing we have. When Paul and his mission team went to Thessalonika, the people saw that these missionaries were living with integrity between when they taught and how they lived; they didn’t even ask for money, but earned their own living while they were preaching the message. In turn, the Thessalonians embraced the Christian message fully, and started living according to the teachings of Jesus.

Part of our problem in Britain today is that our culture is no longer based on the teachings of Jesus. Even 50 years ago, there would have been a shared understanding around Christian values. If two people wanted to have a close relationship, they would start dating, then get married, and only then enjoy full intimacy. Once a person was married, they were not available for other relationships. Of course people got tempted to break the rules – but by and large, there was peer pressure from family and friends to keep the rules.

In today’s world, the rules are different. Society around us can’t agree on any other rules, so the only possible rule is: adults can do whatever they like together, as long as they agree. But when personal relationships get mixed up with the person who can choose whether you get a promotion or pay-rise, there is always a subtle pressure which means you are not totally free to say no. We Christians need to recognise this. If we are are unmarried or widowed, and therefore free to seek a romantic relationship, we would do well to identify a few rules for ourselves.

  • First, we must choose not to date anyone with whom we have a power-relation, either as a boss or an employee. If we do fall in love in such a situation, the price of pursuing the relationship should be for one person, preferably the more powerful one, to leave the organisation. (This is an ideal – but we should hold ourselves to high ideals.)
  • Second, if we do choose to flirt with someone, it should only be someone we view as a possible future husband or wife – someone who is also unmarried or a widower.
  • Third, when we do start dating someone, we should set out our values clearly from the beginning: we believe that certain kinds of intimacy must wait until we are married. This avoids disappointment and misunderstandings for all concerned. We can no longer take it for granted that other people – even if they are churchgoers – automatically share this point of view.

Some of us come from cultures where it is normal for parents to make introductions in the hope of marrying their children into good families. It’s not wrong to make suggestions, but the Catholic Church teaches that marriage must always be a free choice between the man and woman concerned. If you do choose to arrange a possible relationship for your children, integrity requires that you give your adult child room to say “no” with dignity. It would be a terrible thing to place your offspring in a dilemma where honouring their parents means accepting a relationship they are not entirely comfortable with. Indeed, Scripture warns parents not to “drive your children to resentment”.

Of course, integrity goes beyond romantic relationships. We may be in workplace situations where we are asked to break a rule or give someone an unfair advantage in exchange for a pay-rise, promotion, or other perk. Perhaps Our Lord had this kind of situation in mind when he said “the children of this world are more astute than the children of light”. It’s a very worldly thing, to do someone a favour in return for some advantage. But that’s not how Christ asks us to live. If we truly put our trust in him, and resist such behaviour for his sake, then I believe that he will bless us because of it. Scripture declares that God will turn all things to good for those who love Christ JesusA finger pointing to the left with other fingers curved over the hand's palm.

So remember the old saying, that when we point the finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at ourself. So how is your integrity today? Before we rush to condemn the greedy Jesuit, or anyone who happens to be in the news headlines this week, let’s examine our own behaviour, and raise our own standards. This requires self-discipline, but we can also encourage each other to keep high standards. It’s up to us! Remember one more old saying: A true gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes… and doesn’t.


* Adapted from Jesuits Telling Jokes.

Glimpses of Immortality

Homily at St Philip Evans, for All Souls’ Day, 2017.

We are immortal souls, destined to rise again.

Each of the readings we’ve just heard offers us a glimpse of immortality.

God whispers to the prophet Daniel that the dead will rise again.

St Paul, who was caught up into heaven and allowed to see long-hidden things, speaks confidently about a day when the dead will be raised and the living caught up into the air with them.

The two disciples on the road to Emmaus and the 11 gathered in the Upper Room rejoiced when they met Jesus risen from the dead.

What do these three scriptures have in common? They are glimpses not of heaven, but of the resurrection of the body. We are immortal souls, destined to rise again.

When we pray the creed, we profess our belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come”.

When we lose someone we love, is our first instinct to rejoice in their resurrection or hope they are in heaven? And how much is our picture of heaven shaped by Hollywood and popular culture, rather than what God shows us through his Word?

Perhaps it’s true that God allows many people a foretaste of heaven, either through mystical experiences – such as the paintings of child prodigy Akiane Kramarik – or near-death experiences. Two recent films have been based on children who have claimed to have been on the brink of death and returned after meeting Jesus – Heaven is for Real a few years ago, and last year, with an all-star cast, Miracles from Heaven. There are also many adults who have had near death experiences and returned with remarkable stories – such as Stanley Villavicencio, a Filipino man who sat bolt upright after three days in a coma, with a message of meeting Jesus as depicted in the image of Divine Mercy.

These stories are interesting, even encouraging – but they are not God’s word.

There are also stories of souls visiting earth to ask for our prayers. In Rome there is even a small museum of purgatory – a display case holds a dozen artefacts, each with the story of a soul in need of prayers appearing to a living relative to ask for prayers and leaving some kind of mark on an everyday object. An Austrian woman, Maria Simma – who died in 2004 – claimed to have a special gift of being visited by many souls in needs of prayer and wrote about her experiences in a book called Get Me Out of Here!

Again, these claims are interesting – but they are not God’s word.

We are immortal souls, destined to rise again.

The passages from the Bible we have heard today point us not to heaven, but to our own immortality. What happens after we rise again – whether we spent eternity in happiness with God or in agony, forever separated from perfect love – depends entirely on whether we accept God’s gracious offer of salvation during our life on Earth. For those of us who hear the Gospel it’s about whether we turn to Jesus in prayer and ask Him to save us. For those people who never heard the Gospel, it’s about how they follow their consciences. But today isn’t about whether we spend eternity with God or apart from him. It’s about what happens before that.

Today is the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed. Today exists on our calendar because we understand that souls who have died are in need of our prayers. The Bible never says this directly, but drops hints. The Second Book of Maccabees notes in passing that it is “a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins”. Jesus told a parable about a sinner who was put in prison “until he could pay the last penny” – surely having no money in prison, the debt could only be paid by those who loved him. Other Bible passages also hint at the reality of Purgatory, a final purification before some souls enter heaven – a state that only exists for souls who die before the Second Coming. When the day comes that we’ve just heard St Paul talking about – the day when the living and the dead are raised together – there will be no more Purgatory.

We are immortal souls, destined to rise again. But we haven’t yet reached our destiny. So as an act of love, while we still live in these mortal bodies, we pray for the Faithful Departed who have gone before us and await the day when they will be raised anew and caught up with those still alive.

Let’s stand and pray for these souls. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

What kind of saint will you be?

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Solemnity of All Saints, 2017.

What kind of saint do you want to be?

In the Missal, there are prayers to honour different kinds of saint. First place goes to Our Lady and the Apostles. But there’s no room for new Apostles – they belong to the New Testament.

What kind of saint do you want to be?

The second place goes to Martyrs. It’s not impossible that any one of us might be killed for our faithfulness to Christ or the Catholic Church – but in this country, it’s not very likely right now. Our patron, Saint Philip Evans, reminds us that it was different in the past… we pray that all of us here today will be spared the honour of shedding our blood for Christ.

What kind of saint do you want to be?

Next place goes to Pastors. This covers all kinds of priests and bishops, from Pope Gregory the Great to the humble Curé of Ars. Some founded religious orders, others led churches in times of crisis. Maybe God is calling someone here today to be a priest. Usually, in our Western tradition, that is someone who never married, but widowers are eligible too – for instance, Deacon Peter MacLaren, who preached at my 10th anniversary Mass, is now a priest. But not many of us will be called to take Holy Orders.

What kind of saint do you want to be?

The Missal has a large collection of prayers in honour of Virgins. Some of these, the virgin martyrs, were women who died for refusing to enter ungodly relationships. But most of them are women who knew that God was calling them to live their life on earth as a bride of Christ. The Bible hints that there are special rewards in heaven for men and women who choose not to enter a sexual relationship on earth, as a shocking sign to the world that our relationship with God is more important than any earthly intimacy.

All of us, who are followers of Christ, are called to chastity – that means waiting until we are married before experiencing sexual union for the first time. Some of us here today may be called to Virginity for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. This can be a lived out in a formal way by joining a religious order, becoming a hermit, or for women only, making a vow of virginity directly to the bishop of the diocese. Others among us may discover in practice that God has called us to this because the right relationship has never come along for us during our lifetime. It can be a scary thought, that God would call you to live for intimacy with Him alone – but He asks this of you, when you find the courage to embrace it, He will give you strength.

What kind of saint do you want to be?

Perhaps you haven’t found the right kind yet. Not many of us will be ordained ministers or embrace virginity for the sake of God’s Kingdom. St John Paul II and Pope Francis agree with you – we need another kind of saint!

Virginity is good, for those who are called to it, but marriage is also blessed by God – indeed we call it a state of holy matrimony. The final kind of saint in the Missal is found in ‘the Common of Holy Men and Women’. In case that sounds like a poor relation which is ‘none of the above’, remember the most pre-eminent such saint is no less than St Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin!* Among these saints are widows who entered religious life, deacons and religious brothers who never became pastors, and visionaries like St Bernadette and the little shepherds of Fatima.

St John Paul realised that we need more role models who are not religious or in holy orders, and made it his business to beatify and canonise many more examples of holiness who are closer to our everyday life. Pope Francis recently rewrote the rules to emphasise that there is another way to become a saint. “Greater love has no-one than to lay down his life for a friend,” said Our Lord. Yet until this year there was no explicit category of saints who did this – and that is going to need a new page in the Missal. But there are examples to inspire us:

St Maximilian Kolbe offered his life to save a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz.

St Gianna Molla and Blessed Chiara Corbella were pregnant mothers who chose to forego life-saving treatment for themselves in order to avoid damage to their unborn children.

Blessed Piergiorgio Frassati, a young Italian in his 20s, visited sick people in Turin, and died of an illness he probably picked up by doing so.

Blessed Laura Vicuña, a Chilean teenager, made a vow offering her life to Jesus if He would rescue her mother from living in sin. She died following a beating from her mother’s abusive partner, but her mother found the strength to leave the abusive relationship and return to the Church.

St Giuseppe Moscati, an Italian doctor, was canonised for simply being a prayerful man who devoted himself to his medical craft.

What kind of saint do you want to be?

It is not even necessary to die for the sake of others to become a saint. Pope Francis recently canonized the parents of St Thérèse of Lisieux – now Saints Louis and Zélie Martin – for the example they gave of being committed parents over a truly Christian family.

Blessed Chiara Badano and St Dominic Savio both died in their teens; they were beatified simply for living lives which embraced Catholic values to the full in the way they put God first and loved their friends in purity and simplicity.

Chiara and Dominic were not martyrs, nor visionaries. They were ordinary Catholics like you and me. If they can be recognised as saints by the way they lived their lives before the age of 20, then sainthood is within reach of every one of us.

Resist the temptation to say that being a ‘saint’ is too lofty an ambition and you only wish to be an ordinary Christian. Oh no! Be careful! A ‘saint’ is just someone who made it into heaven. If you tell God ‘I don’t want to be a saint’, what you are really saying is ‘I don’t want to go to heaven!’

We will not all be high profile saints with a special day in the calendar. But we should all aim to make today our feast day – that when our grandchildren attend Mass today in 100 years’ time, we will be among ‘all the saints’ they are honouring in heaven. So be a saint. There’s only one question that matters: What kind of saint do you want to be?


* The ‘Common of Virgins’ is specifically for female saints. The Catholic Church has not taken a formal view on whether St Joseph had a previous wife before his celibate marriage to the Blessed Virgin. For these reasons, St Joseph’s feast days appropriately draws from the Common of Holy Men & Women.