Facing the Future

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

[Before the Gospel is proclaimed, everyone present will be asked to remain standing at the end.]

Dear Friends, today we celebrate the 32nd anniversary of the Dedication of this Church, and I have asked you to remain standing because I would like to show you the future! What does the future of our parish look like?

First of all, if you are a visitor among us, and this is not the church where you usually worship, please be seated.

Secondly, if for any reason you do not expect to be attending this church most Sundays by this time next year, please be seated.

I wish to show you the future, and we must plan for the long term. I hope that many of us will live long lives of service continuing to contribute to the parish, but for now I would like everyone aged over 75…70…65 to sit down.

Finally, I want to address our brothers and sisters from India, who belong to the Syro-Malabar branch of the Catholic Church. I don’t know what provision your bishop will make in the coming years, but let’s imagine that a priest is sent to Cardiff to celebrate your liturgy, the Holy Qurbana, every Sunday. If you would choose to go to that rather than come here every Sunday, please sit down.

Those of you still standing, have a good look at each other. The future of our parish is in your hands. There is no-one else who can make our parish thrive when our older brothers and sisters find that declining health prevents them giving the wonderful gifts they offer us right now. You too, please be seated – but be attentive!

Give to God what belongs to God.

This was Our Lord’s answer to a trick question designed to catch him out. But it’s a good question. What does belong to God? What are we expected to give Him?

When the Lord invites you to the wedding banquet, will you come? And will you be wearing a wedding garment?

When the Lord looks for fruit in his vineyard, will have have grown any?

When the Lord asks you to work in his vineyard, will you go?

Over the last four Sundays, St Luke has repeatedly told us that God has work for us to do. That work includes the care we give to our families, our work colleagues and the local community – but in particular it applies to our work for this parish community. Today we celebrate the Dedication of the Church. We are the living stones of which our church is built. How dedicated are we?

The fact that we have a church building here in Llanedeyrn makes a statement. It says that we, the Catholics of this parish, takes responsibility for what belongs to God in Llanedeyrn, Pentwyn, Pontprennau and St Edeyrn’s Village. We are not St Brigid’s with St Paul’s. Our brothers and sisters there are responsible for Cyncoed and Llanishen. One question I always have to keep in mind as your Pastor is to ask whether we are still large enough as a community to do God’s work without needing to merge with our neighbours. Let’s assume, for the moment, that we are large enough. What challenges will the future bring?

I’d like to share with you some numbers.

Every year, the parents of about 70 children ask that they should receive First Communion here. Most of those families do not attend Mass regularly. Maybe 10 of those families are not even Catholic. How can we welcome them and encourage them to be active members of our parish family?

Every year, the parents of about 30 infants ask that these children should be baptised here. How can we welcome these and encourage them, too, to be active members of our parish family?

In January, after the Parish Mission, we launched our “Connect & Explore” Groups. About 25 of us came to try them out. Last month, we launched our new season… but only about 10 of us are still coming. That means that almost all of us, more than 300 souls, are not choosing to strengthen our community bonds and deepen our faith through the programme on offer. When we offer coffee and tea after Mass on the second Sunday of each month, maybe fifteen of us stay – but 150 souls leave without joining in. This is not a recipe for a healthy parish.

I know there are good reasons why some of us cannot take part. Maybe some of us work shifts which change from week to week. I have tried to address this by making sure that Connect & Explore runs in three different slots. Maybe some of us don’t like to drink tea or coffee – well, tell our caterers what we should be providing.

Those of you who were the last parishioners standing, you are from many nations, languages and cultures. I know that it takes extra effort to mix when you have to speak a language which is not your mother tongue, or share food which is not your natural palate. But consider this – what happens when a marriage takes place across such boundaries? Let me tell you about Graeme, who is Scottish. He married my friend Alina, who is Polish. Before the wedding, and again regularly afterwards, he went with Alina to visit her family in Poland. Graeme doesn’t speak Polish. Alina’s parents don’t speak much English. But this relationship matters. Alina’s family had become Graeme’s in-laws. So although it wasn’t easy, and still isn’t, Graeme continues to visit Poland, eat their food at their table, and do his best to communicate.

We are the bride of Christ. We celebrate today that in this parish, we are one spiritual family, bound together by our common baptism. But every time we refuse the invitation to spend time with one another, our actions are saying “You are not my family” – and the body of Christ is broken once again.

Now, how are we to respond to these many requests for baptism and first communion from families who do not often attend weekend worship? The law of the church (Canon 843) states: “Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who seek them at appropriate times, [who] are properly disposed…Pastors of souls and other members of the Christian faithful… have the duty to take care that those who seek the sacraments are prepared to receive them…”

Did you notice that? It’s not only my job as parish priest to help them become ready. It is also your job. You’ve heard the saying that “it takes a village to raise a child”? Well, “it takes a parish to make a Catholic”.

Last year, more than 60 children made their first communion in this parish. I’d like any children who made their First Communion in the last 3 years to stand up. [Affirm the children who do.] Is it OK that most of our children are missing now?

Last year, we baptised more than 30 children in this parish. How many of those babies are here right now? I do recognise that it’s difficult for parents to manage small children at Mass – indeed there’s no obligation to bring children under First Communion age to Mass – and I have good news: now that we have launched our parish Toddler Mass, more than 100 people came last Saturday. But that still doesn’t represent all the babies we have baptised. Is it OK that many of our families are missing now?

It’s not OK. So what are we going to do about it?

I want to share with you now the vision that Deacon Steve and myself have for the future.

Next Autumn, September 2018, we will launch something we’re calling the “Parish Connection Programme”. This will be a short course, over several evenings and perhaps a day retreat, that reminds us why we do the things we do as Catholics, why Our Lord Jesus is at the centre of faith, and what it means to be a member of this parish. This programme, or PCP, will be the gateway to receiving Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation in this parish. Do you want your baby baptised? Do the PCP. Do you want to become a Catholic? Do the PCP. Do you want your child to receive First Communion? In order to give your child appropriate parental example and support, do the PCP. What exactly we put into the PCP will be developed over the next few months with our Parish Leadership Group. But next year I will ask all of us to take part in a PCP so it becomes part of the shared history of our parish. I want us to come together from our different languages and cultures and do this together. And those of you who were the last ones standing, I am looking to you in particular to learn to run our Parish Connection Programme.

We will need to run lots of PCPs. Next autumn, a few pioneers will take part and iron out teething troubles. In spring 2019, the graduates of the first courses will run more of them so we can all take part. This will be the way to help our parish grow and become strong. We may need to put some of our other parish actitivies on hold for a few months to make space for this.

We CAN do this.

We NEED to do this.

If we face this with the wrong attitude, giving to God the work that belongs to God, it will become as tedious as paying taxes.

If we do it with the right attitude, we will meet the challenge in the same was as the Thessalonian Christians St Paul addressed his words to: “When we brought the Good News to you, it came to you not only as words, but as power and as the Holy Spirit and as utter conviction. You have shown your faith in action, worked for love and persevered through hope.”

We know what we need to do. This week we’ve been comparing notes with other pioneering parishes across the UK, and we know we’re taking the right steps. But we have to work together. We have one year to get ready for this new way of being parish, where all take part in the Parish Connection Programme, so we in turn can offer it to our missing brothers and sisters.

We can do this.

We WILL do this.

Who is ready to stand up and give to God what belongs to God?

 

Catholic or Christian?

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

Are you a Catholic or a Christian?

Don’t take too long to think about it. I’m interested in the first answer that popped into your head. How many wanted to say “Christian”? How many “Catholic?” How many of you wanted to say “Both”?

I do acknowledge, of course, that not everyone here today is Catholic. Some of you are preparing to become Catholics – so you can ponder how you will answer the question when that happy day comes. Others among you are guests in our congregation from the Orthodox Churches of the East, welcome to receive the sacraments here. We share the same creed which declares the church to be universal – “catholic” with a small “c” – but you are not big-C Catholics under the authority of Pope Francis. You are always welcome here, and we pray for the day when our churches are known for being part of some united structure rather than a divided structure.

The big issue I want to tackle today is this: some of us are Catholics, but not Christians.

The word “Christian” means a follower of Christ. To be “a Catholic not a Christian” is to be a tenant in the Vineyard but not to welcome the landowner’s son.

A red bunch of grapes hangs from a grapevine which recedes into the distanceToday’s First Reading and Gospel use the image of a vineyard to describe Israel, God’s Chosen People. God Our Father expected them to bear fruit – to treat the poorest people generously and fairly, to keep worshipping God and not idols. The murdered servants represent the Prophets, like Elijah and Isaiah, sent to Israel through the ages. God is represented by the landowner who has “gone overseas” – we are separated from God in our broken humanity.

In the fullness of time, Jesus came – his mission was to give the Jewish people a perfect understanding of how to live out God’s Law. But the Jewish leaders conspired to have him crucified. So God put the vineyard in the care of new tenants – the Catholic Church! (Many of the first members were Jews who accepted Jesus as their Messiah.) Then, through our human brokenness, we divided the vineyard among ourselves. The Protestant section has each vine managed by its own leader. The Orthodox section has national groups of vines under one manager. In our Catholic section, Pope Francis is foreman over all our vines.

The trouble us, we still suffer from the same brokenness as the Israelites of old; we can still fall into the same traps. Here in the Catholic section of the Vineyard, we can be tempted to say, “I have my membership card! Look! I’m a member of the Catholic Tenants’ Association!” But will that be enough when we meet Jesus on the last day of our lives? If God the Father was angry with the lack of fruit then, will he be pleased with the fruit we are bearing now?

What does it look like, to bear fruit for God?

The most important fruit is new ChristiansHow many people have become active members of the Catholic Church because of you?

Another fruit is good works – do you volunteer for any church project or other activity in the local community?

Yet another fruit is our generous giving – is your gift to CAFOD this week the change in your pocket, or is it big enough that you will truly go without something you would have enjoyed?

Saint Paul speaks today about filling our minds with whatever is noble and pure. That includes avoiding pornography and gratuitous violence in what we choose to watch, read and listen to. It also includes taking time to fill our minds with God’s teaching, by reading the Bible at home and coming together for opportunities to explore our faith.

Imagine that Jesus stepped into this church right now and pointed his finger at you. “You, now, tell me what fruit you have borne for my vineyard!” What good have you done this year for the parish? What good have you done for the local community? What good have you done for your extended family?

Make no mistake, at the end of your life, Jesus will do this. There will be a reckoning. It’s not only for the good of the parish that I preach about ways to get involved – it’s so that you can give a good account of your fruitfulness when He asks you. I do not want you to be found lacking! If you can give a good account – fantastic! If not, there’s a right way and a wrong way to deal with it. The wrong way is to try to ignore the challenge, or become so angry that we want to keep our distance from Jesus. That’s when we might be tempted to say “I’m a Catholic, not a Christian!”

The right way is to face up to the challenge, and repent. If you know you haven’t been producing the fruit Jesus wants, I would like to invite you to come to confession straight after this Mass. Make a new beginning. Is this really sin? Oh yes! Sin, by definition, is “not doing what Jesus is asking you to do”! Or if you can’t linger after this Mass, come to confession some time in the next week.

Paul reminds us not to worry, but to pray for whatever we need. We can pray for forgiveness – we can pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit which allow us to bear fruit – and we can pray for God’s guidance to help us know how to use our talents. In the very act of seeking divine help, we bear the fruit of offering God worship!

Are you a Catholic or a Christian? If you cannot yet say: “I am a follower of Jesus, looking forward to the day he returns to this vineyard” – today would be a good day to decide to become a Christian!

 

 

 

Destination: Heaven

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

Imagine that you’re minding your own business, walking down a street in Cardiff, when a stranger approaches you and introduces themself to you. Very quickly the stranger asks you a direct question: “If you were to die tonight, do you know, without a shadow of a doubt, whether you would go to heaven?”A

Actually, that might have happened to some of us. Is there anyone in church today who has had such a conversation?

At the start of July this year, there were teams of Christians all over Cardiff asking that very question as part of a Mission to Wales.* The Mission will continue in future months, so if you haven’t been stopped yet, there’s a chance it might happen in the near future. But what answer would you give?

Now as Catholics, we believe in Purgatory – that for many souls, some purification may be needed before we can enter heaven. If the stranger asks you whether you would go “STRAIGHT to heaven”, you might say no, expecting to spend time in Purgatory first. But I don’t want to spend time today talking about Purgatory, or how to avoid it. I want to talk about our final destination. We know that all souls will either end up in Heaven or in Hell.**

Do you know what you have to do to make sure that you will end up in Heaven, not in Hell? I’ve tried asking lots of Catholics the question “will you go to heaven when you die”, and many of us don’t seem too sure about it! But we can be certain! St Paul seems pretty confident in today’s Second Reading that if he died, he would go to be with Jesus. Our Lord came to show us the way and tell us what we need to do. So here is your 5-minute guide on “How to Get to Heaven”.

Step One: Get Baptised.

Baptism wipes away all our past sins. When an adult – or a child old enough to understand – chooses baptism, they’re asking God to wash away everything bad from the past. Someone who dies just after baptism will surely go straight to Heaven.

Step Two: Avoid Mortal Sin.

Remember that a Mortal Sin is committed when we choose to do, or neglect, something which is serious in God’s eyes, in full knowledge of the situation, and with moral freedom to choose our course of action. It’s not possible to commit a Mortal Sin by accident – it’s because we’ve made a deliberate and free choice of something bad that the sin becomes mortal.

Step Three: If you do commit Mortal Sin, go to confession.

And if you aren’t sure whether your sin is mortal or not, go to confession. What you can be sure of, is that any sin sincerely confessed to a priest will be forgiven.

So…

Imagine that some terrible explosion destroyed all our bodies in the next sixty seconds. If you know that you’ve been baptised, and you’ve confessed any mortal sins committed since your baptism, you can rest assured in the knowledge that your final destination is Heaven.

On the other hand, if you’ve been avoiding baptism, or avoiding confessing the serious sins on your conscience, then start worrying, because your final destination would be the Other Place, and you don’t want to go there!

Of course, we can always try to pick this simple teaching apart with clever “What-If” scenarios. What if someone dies waiting for their scheduled baptism or on the way to confession? But God knows our hearts, and will not punish us for failing to do something we were genuinely trying to do.

Some of you might find a worrying word stirring in your consciousness at this moment, the word presumption. Weren’t we once taught as Catholics that we should avoid presuming we would go to heaven?

Not exactly, no.

What the Church says*** we can’t presume is that, if we don’t bother to repent of our sins, God will admit us to heaven anyway. No – the first message of Jesus is that we must repent! While Jesus does sometimes talk about good works – the sheep who feed the hungry and visit the prisoners are welcomed into heaven – we have to put all his teachings together to get the full picture, and Jesus spoke many times to warn us that our sins can send us to Hell if we don’t change our ways. So in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “Seek the Lord while he is still to be found! Turn back to God, who is rich in forgiving!”

Our Church also says that we can’t presume that our good deeds will “earn” our entry to Heaven. That’s what today’s parable is all about. Heaven is not a reward for doing a full lifetime’s work on earth. Rather, the deal God offers us is this: “If you’re working for me on the day you die, you’ll receive the reward in heaven.” On the other hand, if you’ve been labouring for a whole day, but you can’t look the master in the eye when it’s time to receive your wages, you will not receive your reward after all.

It’s very simple. Get baptised. Avoid sin. Confess the sins you can’t avoid committing. Never turn away from the deal God offers, that you must work for him on earth, and when you die, by the free gift God is offering, you will certainly go to heaven!

So next time someone stops you on the street to ask “If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven?” you should know exactly what answer you should give. And if that answer is not an unambiguous YES, I strongly urge you to do something about it!


* Full disclosure: CatholicPreacher led a team of 12 Catholics on the streets of Cardiff as contributors to the Mission.

** OK, this is an over-simplification for preaching purposes. Heaven and Hell are the long-term destinations pending the Second Coming. It’s possible a soul could be in Purgatory until the Last Judgment. And for a soul which has been in Heaven, or waiting in Purgatory for the Last Judgment, the ultimate destination is “the new heavens and the new earth” which the Bible promises. I’m using “ending up in Heaven” as shorthand for this. Souls in Hell receive their eternal body at the Last Judgment and then return to Hell.

*** The Council of Trent (Chapter XII of the Sixth Session) taught that no person could rashly presume to be predestined to eternal life “for without special revelation it is impossible to know whom God has chosen for himself”. However, this is a teaching about final perseverance (“If I don’t die right now, can I be sure I won’t commit a mortal sin between now and the moment I die”) rather than a teaching saying we can’t know the state of grace we’re in right now. Rather, because baptism and sacramental confession are objective acts, and Mortal Sin requires a conscious knowledge of one’s own action, I can make a very clear statement about whether I am in a “state of grace” right now. Baptism attains that state; mortal sin loses it; a genuine intent to confess the sin with a firm purpose of amendment regains it, sealed by actually making confession insofar as that is possible.

 

A Step in the Right Direction

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

When your brother does something wrong, go and correct him. If it’s your sister who’s sinning, go and correct her!

Before we rush off on a moral crusade to change the world, though, we need to listen carefully to this Gospel.An octagonal red sign with STOP written in white capitals

Jesus is teaching about “your brother”, which means a fellow-member of the Church community. If we are all committed Catholics, then we will want to live our lives according to Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is calling us to correct other people who have signed up to the same standards as we have. When he preached his challenge to correct the sinner, he was preaching to a Jewish audience who had a shared moral code. In our First Reading, Ezekiel was called to rebuke Israel – the nation which had made a special promise to follow God’s laws – and those individuals God pointed out to him.

Note also that Jesus talks about your brother ‘doing something wrong’. Often we get upset about the things that other people haven’t done… we feel hurt, let down, disappointed. But we should be slow to rush to judgment on these matters, because there could be a thousand good reasons why your sister or brother couldn’t do that thing, even if they’d made a solemn promise. In these cases, we need to keep our anger in check and gently ask the reason why.

Many moral acts depend on our personal circumstances. Nevertheless, our bishops at the Second Vatican Council, and St John Paul II, taught that there are certain human actions which are always so bad that there can never be a reason to justify them. The technical name for these things is “intrinsic evils”.

It makes sense to me that God would give us a clear way to know right and wrong in each generation, when new moral questions arise. Jesus gave St Peter the authority to teach and strengthen his brothers, and I recognise that through this, God is asking us to trust each Pope to teach us morals. This needs a big act of humility to admit that I don’t know best by my own powers of reasoning – true Christian humility!

This week, the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was asked whether he believed abortion was wrong even when a woman had been made pregnant against her will. Rarely for a politician, he gave a straight answer – yes, even in those circumstances, he said, abortion was not permissible. Because it is an intrinsic evil, it’s not possible for any of the hard cases we can come up with to make it OK. Right now, the law still recognises this in Ireland, but there’s pressure for change there too.

There are other actions the Catholic Church says are always wrong: examples include use of a weapon of mass destruction, genocide, torture, human trafficking, any sexual act outside of a true marriage between a man and a woman, and any intervention which makes a fertile sexual act deliberately infertile. These, and more, are listed by St John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (no. 80), who reminds us the idea comes from St Paul, who wrote (Rom 3:8) that we “cannot do evil so that good may come of it”.

We believe in a God who longs to forgive us, but before we can be forgiven, we must repent. And before we can repent, we must recognise that there is something wrong in our behaviour. Perhaps we’re not comfortable with some of these church teachings. At a human level, we can come up with all sorts of counter-arguments. But as Catholic followers of Jesus, the question that really matters is: “What is God’s teaching here?”

Some of us instinctively think of right and wrong in terms of rules and duties. If God says something is wrong, even though we foresee tough consequences in hard cases, we might be willing to swallow this bitter pill because it seems logical that there’s no other way around things.

Many of us will think of right and wrong in terms of consequences… we ask what decision would cause least pain to others? It’s right to want to minimise pain and maximise happiness, and when we are choosing between two possible good courses of action which may have side-effects, that’s the way we naturally make decisions. But intrinsic evils are different – we cannot choose to do evil directly so that good may come.

St Paul reminds us (Rom 8:28) that God turns all things to the good for those who love Christ Jesus. When we look at the possible consequences of a moral choice, do those consequences include God stepping in to help those who make a heroic decision to do the hard thing and follow God’s law? If we don’t believe that, what does this say about our lack of trust in God?

Meanwhile, we live in a world that doesn’t share these moral values. Sometimes members of our own family, even those who were brought up Catholic, won’t share them. And if you’ve ever tried to impose your moral values on someone else, you’ll know that’s a hiding to nothing.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to correct those who are not our brothers and sisters in the Church. He asks us to share Good News with them. The Good News is Jesus is real, and willing to forgive anything they already sense they’ve done wrong. THAT must be our starting point. Later, they will ask about Jesus’ teaching, and then we can share hard truths, when they are ready and willing to hear it. But that’s not where we should begin.

Today’s Gospel is one of the most challenging instructions that Jesus has given us. In today’s Second Reading, we heard that all commandments are summed up by “love your neighbour as yourself”. True love is tough love – if you love a fellow Christian, help them to avoid sin and become a saint. After all, isn’t that what you would want for yourself?

Great Expectations: Invite

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

“Great things! I’m expecting great things of you, Mr Leyshon!”

When I was at school, my headmaster left me in no doubt of his high expectations of me. He said so often, in Welsh tones that brooked no argument. He could see that I had the potential to do well, and didn’t want me to fall short.

Jesus looks at us with the same skilled eye of a teacher who wants his class to do well, and his message is the same. “Great things! I’m expecting great things of you, people of St Philip Evans!”

If you read any of the Gospels, it’s clear that Jesus sets a challenge for the people willing to follow him. In the parable of the Talents, he challenges us to make a profit. He commended a poor widow who gave her last two coins for God’s service. In his picture of the last judgment, the “sheep” who helped poor people are admitted to a heavenly reward. And now, last week and again this week, Jesus has told us stories about wheat growing in the fields. Last week he said a person who understands God’s word can produce a harvest of thirty, sixty or a hundredfold. This week he says that we are to be harvested like wheat, even though there are weeds – or darnel – growing among us.

Why does anyone grow wheat? There are only two things you can do with it: you can plant the grain to grow more wheat, or you can grind the grains to make flour. The fruit, the harvest, that Jesus is looking for is disciples  people willing to listen to his teaching and follow it. First we must make ourselves into disciples; then we must encourage other people to hear and follow Jesus also. This makes us wheat which bears fruit.

But wheat is also ground and made into flour. There’s a hymn by Bernadette Farrell which says “may we who eat be bread for others…” – if we live as followers of Jesus, there will be times we are wearied by doing things to help people who will not, or cannot, give us anything in return. We become, like him, bread broken for others. So the harvest Christ is looking for is twofold – our good works, and our encouraging other people to become followers of Jesus.

We ourselves can be easily discouraged. It’s not easy to be wheat, ground, and bread, broken, for others. And it’s not always easy to live out our Catholic faith to the full. There are weeds around us. There are people who take from our parish but give little back. They want weddings and funerals, Baptisms and First Communions but don’t become part of the larger life of our community. Perhaps some of you come here regularly for Mass, but don’t volunteer for any activities in the parish, even during the Mass you attend. When that happens, we become a weak parish. But when we all contribute something, we become strong.

People of St Philip Evans, I am expecting great things of you. A harvest is coming! At the end of your life, to each one of you, Jesus will ask: what fruit have you to show? Who else has become an active member of the church because of you? How well have you done in passing on faith to your children? If that doesn’t seem to be working, what did you do to learn better ways to pass on your faith?

Is it possible for us to bear fruit 100-fold? Yes! Less than 1% of the population of Wales goes to Mass. So it is possible for us to bear fruit 100-fold, if we get all our friends and neighbours involved! But let’s remember that coming to church is not an end in itself – it is a one of the things we do because Jesus asks us to take his Body and Blood and support one another as members of His Body. Our job is to make disciples, to help people want to be followers of Jesus. And we need to start with ourselves, so that we can lead by example.invite

What do followers of Jesus do? They do exactly the kind of things the six banners around our church suggest. Followers of Jesus worship him, by attending Mass and making time for prayer. They volunteer to help the poor and needy, and to make the church community work. They explore what Jesus has taught them and connect with one another to keep the community strong. They invest their own wealth in the community, and invite other people to come and join in.

At this time of year, we may be looking forward to our summer holidays, but we are also beginning to think of the new cycle of life which will begin in September. Here is my challenge to you. All of you have in front of you a leaflet, which suggests different ways you can worship, volunteer, connect, explore, invest and invite. What have you already done this year? Can you take one more step, under at least one of those headings, next year? If you are visiting us from another parish, you can apply this same challenge to the way you support your own church.

I’m inviting you to write your name on the piece of paper, to own it… and to choose at least one thing you are not already doing, to pledge that from September, you will do it. I’m not asking you to hand in the paper – this is between you and God. Don’t let the weeds take away your energy or deter you from growing to be as fruitful as God wants you to be. God holds you responsible for bearing fruit even among the weeds. Jesus, who died for you, is always willing to walk with you, to strengthen you on this journey. Maybe family circumstances mean you even have to drop a big thing next year, but you can still choose something small yet significant. So make your choice – but remember, the Lord and I are expecting great things of you, people of God! Choose wisely!

The Fault in Our Stars

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Hazel and Gus lie on grass, their faces touching, with the caption Today’s sermon is inspired by a movie – it’s called The Fault in Our Stars. In case you haven’t seen it, it’s a love story about a boy and a girl, who meet in a support group for cancer survivors. Being a love story, it’s not much of a spoiler if I tell you that Hazel and Gus fall in love. Nor would it surprise you to learn that they end up making love together.

I enjoyed the movie, but one thing left me downcast. I walked out of the cinema knowing that if one more thing had been added to the plot, it would have been a truly heartwarming movie I would have gladly awarded five stars. What was missing? Imagine that Hazel and Gus had called in a chaplain to celebrate a bedside marriage, followed by a discreetly filmed love scene. Then it would have been a beautiful love story we could celebrate without reservation… but it’s a sign of our times is that the climax is simply that they climb into bed together.

“Put an end to the misdeeds of body!” St Paul, in today’s Second Reading, calls us to a high standard of integrity. He is echoing the teachings of Our Lord himself, who warned us many times against giving in to lust. This is a message we don’t hear often – indeed, it’s one I don’t often preach about myself – but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Today, I want to remind us all of the standards to which we are called – that making love belongs in marriage alone.

We need to be reminded of this message, because the world we live in keeps pulling us away from it. There are very few movies or television series today where characters insist on being married before jumping into bed together. A story about divorce always bears the sadness of a broken relationship, and adultery always means a promise has been broken – but perhaps we also see these on screen so often they begin to feel normal.

Our stars of television, stage and screen do not set us a great example away from the camera, either. We look to famous people to inspire us, but under the intense pressure of the media’s gaze and a wealthy lifestyle, half of all celebrity couples divorce before they have been together for 15 years – that’s twice the divorce rate of the rest of the population. Drew Barrymore, Eminem, and Britney Spears didn’t even make it to their first wedding anniversaries. Perhaps we should be thankful that we are not cursed with such fame or such wealth!

The truth is, that even in today’s world, marriage is important. Couples who get married before they start living together or having children are most likely to have a stable relationship. Couples already living together who eventually get married also have some advantage over those who never make their relationship official – this is based on solid research on couples in the UK by a think tank called the Marriage Foundation. Getting married doesn’t need to be expensive – we don’t have to follow the trend for ever-more-lavish parties – and I’ve even heard of churches who pull together to put on a reception so that poor members who feel they can’t afford a wedding can tie the knot.

I know I am preaching to the converted because most if not all of you at Mass today who are in stable relationships are already married – though perhaps I should remind you that if a Catholic gets married without the church’s blessing, your civil marriage is not recognised by the Church. If that applies to you, don’t panic – come and see me so I can arrange a blessing for you.

The reason I’m talking about this today is that we have a major task on our hands – we must correct the fault in our stars. When our stars of stage and screen set a poor example on or off-stage, we must not remain silent. We have a duty to remind our children and our wider families that as God’s children, we are held to a higher standard. In today’s world, this attitude might be seen as naive. But doesn’t Jesus today bless those who are child-like and dismiss those who try to be “adult”? Let’s hold on to our childish romances, then, where a handsome prince sweeps up his virgin queen and celebrates a royal wedding! The Bible itself uses the same romance to speak of God’s love for Zion, symbol of ancient Israel and the Church herself.

Parents, I’m challenging you today to talk to your children about the kind of relationships they see portrayed in movies and on television. We can’t hide from the world we live in – we have to respond to it. Don’t stop older children watching what other people are watching, but ask hard questions. What are the consequences of free relationships? When do relationships become oppressive power games? You might find it helpful to check out the movie reviews commissioned by the United States Bishops, readily available online, which pick out the morals highs and lows.

If we try to ban our older children from watching everyday material, we’ll eventually fail. But what we can do is to recommend positive examples for them to watch or read alongside the more worldly fare. I’ve asked friends who are parents to four children to share with me the books and movies they would recommend, and you’ll find their list in this week’s newsletter (and at the bottom of this page).

The issue is this: we live in a world where our celebrities portrays as “normal” and even “good” kinds of relationships which are against God’s Law. We are temped to compromise our values, but on this matter, we must put an end to the misdeeds of the body. We are called to promote the childlike innocence of Christians, not the serpentine wisdom of the world around us. So do not adjust your sex! There is a fault in our stars!


Some book links from my friends:

There is a link on this website to the booklist we discussed and there is also a podcast worth listening to. It is called Season 10 RAR Bonus episode (some of the best books by living authors)

Clink on the link for bookishness, go to book lists

Episode 48, age appropriateness

 

Film recommendations

Here is a list of films that have been released in the last 5 years and I consider to be of high quality, have something positive to contribute to the culture and are not (at the very least significantly) saying anything contrary to our faith.

 

Up to age 14

(U or PG films, nothing to cause problems content-wise)

  • The Jungle Book
  • The BFG
  • Moana
  • Inside Out
  • The Lego Movie
  • Boxtrolls
  • Big Hero 6
  • Paddington

Age 14+

(these are all rated 12 (or less), but I think are better suited to 14+ as there will often be some swearing, violence, intensity and/or sexual references which I wouldn’t consider suitable to younger children, however it very much depends on the child. Sometimes for me it’s not just about specific content but what the film is about and what age will best appreciate the story)

  • Marvel Avengers films: series of 15 (and rising) interconnected films starting with Iron Man (2008) and most recently Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (2017). The stories are overall very positive, good vs evil, protecting the innocent, doing the right thing, friendship, loyalty etc. lots of action, jokes and a cleverly unfolding larger narrative. All have mild bad language and some have intense scenes and occasional sexual reference. Not to be confused with the other Marvel franchise, the X-Men which although 12 rated has more violence and overall lower quality
  • Star Wars films: Everyone knows these! The most recent ones are 12 rated but are mild, with no bad language or sex references, rating for intensity only
  • Arrival (2016): Brilliant sci-fi about an alien arrival with a pro-life undercurrent, intense scenes of bereavement and occasional bad language
  • A Monster Calls (2016): Powerful film about a boy coping with the imminent death of his mother. There is a lot of fantasy adventure in-between and the film emphasises the wonder of life and how trials can bring family together
  • The Hunger Games (4 films 2012-2015): Slightly controversial as at the end of the first film the characters seem to choose suicide as a valid option (although it doesn’t actually happen) but I don’t believe the film endorses this choice, and while there is some intense action and violence, the films have a strong lead character who stands up to tyranny and dictatorship and the series ends on a positive pro-family note
  • Suffragette (2016): Fictional drama about the suffragette movement, very strong message about the value of all individuals and fighting for what is right. Some mild bad language and an ongoing subplot about an abusive relationship
  • The Hobbit / Lord of the Rings films: Fabulous imaginings of Tolkien’s world. Hobbit films not as good as LOTR but still high quality. No bad language or sex references but many intense / frightening scenes
  • Edge of Tomorrow (2014): Action packed sci fi / alien invasion film about a cowardly soldier who is forced to face death many times and learn how to defeat earth’s enemy
  • Ender’s Game (2013): Low key but well-made sci fi about a boy being trained to lead a mission against an alien invasion, more intellectual than action orientated with some interesting ideas about who our enemies are
  • Saving Mr Banks (2013): Story of the making of Mary Poppins, great characters and lots of laughs, as well as positive emotional journey for the main character. Only rated PG but the backstory of an alcoholic father is a bit intense for youngsters
  • Gravity (2013): Stunning sci fi about a woman stranded in space, strong message of the value of life. Some bad language and intensity
  • Captain Phillips (2013): Gripping and moving true story about a cargo ship overtaken by pirates. Mild bad language and many intense / emotional scenes
  • All is Lost (2013): A sailor is stranded out at sea and tries to survive. Celebration of the resourcefulness and resilience of man. One incidence of strong language.
  • The Impossible (2012): Based on the true story of a family hit by the 2004 Tsunami in Thailand. Very emotionally powerful and positive about what family means. Very intense in the Tsunami scenes with some gruesome images.
  • Lincoln (2012): Story of Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to end slavery. Celebration of idealism and value of the individual. Brief strong language and war violence.
  • Les Miserables (2012): Musical of Victor Hugo’s novel. Very strong affirmation of the value of people, full of rousing songs, emotional uplift and positive Catholic characters. Some bleak situations, sexual references and revolutionary violence.

First Communion

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year A.

Children, this is a very special weekend, one I hope you will remember for the rest of your life. It is special for two reasons. First, because it is the weekend when you will make your First Holy Communion. But secondly – and you might have seen this in the news already – because it is the weekend Pope Francis declared two children to be saints.

Those children were Francisco, aged 8, and Jacinta, aged 7, when 100 years ago this weekend they saw the Virgin Mary for the first time. She appeared five more times to them that year. But this wasn’t the first time something amazing happened to them. The previous year, they had three visions of an angel – and the third time, the angel gave them Holy Communion – it was their First Holy Communion, given to them from Heaven!Grey statue of an angel holding a Host and Chalice

The angel explained that there were lots of people in the world who didn’t believe in Jesus or were even rude to Jesus, and this makes God very sad. There are many people who don’t treat each other with respect and kindness too, and this also offends Jesus, because Jesus lives, hidden, in every human being – including those we are rude to. But there is something we can do to make up for this.

When we come into the presence of Jesus’ body and blood – and remember, every Catholic Church has a tabernacle where we keep Jesus’ body – we can say a special prayer. We can say: “Jesus, I love you, and I am so sorry for the people who ignore you or are rude to you.”

But wouldn’t it be so much better if the people who were rude to Jesus, or don’t care about Him, started caring and loving Him? The angel asked the children to pray for this to happen – we call this conversion. The angel taught them another prayer: “Heavenly Father! Jesus is holy, remember how much he loves us! You kept our Mother Mary free of all sin, remember how much she loves us! Because of their love, convert many souls to love Jesus and Mary in return!”

Then, when the angel gave the children Holy Communion, he said: “Eat and drink the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, who is so hurt by seeing how ungrateful people are. Say prayers to make up for them and show your love for God.”

Jacinta and Francisco took the angel’s message seriously. They looked for ways they could help other people, and when they gave away some of their time, or the things they owned, to help someone else, they said “Jesus, it is for love of you and Mary, so you can convert sinners.” But they didn’t live for very long.

In those days, we hadn’t invented the medicines we have today, and there was a terrible outbreak of ‘flu across Europe. By the year 1920, three years after Our Lady had appeared, both of the children had died. And yet, although neither of them lived long enough to become teenagers, this weekend Pope Francis has declared that they lived such holy lives we can call them saints. This means you are not too young to live as saints, too! But to be saints you must keep remembering to tell Jesus that you love him.

Now, a word to the grown-ups here today. Many of you have come to support these First Communion children – thank you for being with us. Maybe this story sounds very far-fetched to you. Even for Catholics, many of us will be thinking “Can it really be true that an angel appeared from heaven and gave Communion to these children? Can things like that really happen?”

During the last 200 years, there have been many claims that the Virgin Mary has appeared from Heaven. The Catholic Church has investigated these and found 15 of the cases to be worthy of belief. In those places, many people have experienced their prayers being answered in powerful ways; some have claimed miraculous healings. Lourdes and Fatima are the most famous places, but there are others. Even so, no Catholic is required to believe that these things really happened – it’s just that the Pope or the local Bishops think there’s really good evidence that the claims are true.

There is one thing all Catholics ARE required to believe, though. It’s that on Easter Sunday, two days after being nailed to a Cross, Jesus Christ walked through a locked door, without opening it, and showed himself to his friends. If that’s true, it makes the meal Jesus celebrated the night before he died, the Last Supper, the most significant dinner ever eaten on Earth. If it’s true, then the God of the Universe is inviting each of these children here today – and inviting all of you, too – to be fed by him every weekend in your nearest Catholic Church.

Receiving communion is a holy gift – this is why our children have to prepare by making their First Confession. This is why we don’t offer every guest Holy Communion; to receive God’s gift of love we must first sort out our lifestyle, and make sure we are trying to live the way Jesus asked us. That includes being in obedience to the Pope, which is why we don’t offer communion to Christians from Protestant churches – and also includes being married if we are in a partnership. Why are we so protective of Holy Communion? It’s because even when it comes at the hands of priest rather than an angel, we still believe it is God’s gift from Heaven. But if something in your heart is stirred by what you have heard today, maybe God is inviting you to become a Catholic – for 100 years now, those who believe in the message of Fatima have been praying for you!

So children, I’m going to stop preaching now so we can move to our prayers and ask Jesus to become present on this altar. But because of what the Pope has done this weekend, we can make a little bit of history. We can do something we’ve never done in St Philip Evans Church before this weekend. There’s a Catholic rule that says when someone is declared ‘Blessed’ you can only ask for their help in a public church service in their own country, but once they are declared to be a ‘Saint’, you can call upon them at Mass in any church in the world. So on this weekend of firsts, join me in our responses:

St Jacinta – pray for us!
St Francisco – pray for us!
Our Lady of Fatima – pray for us!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!