Children of God

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B Vocation Sunday

A true Christian lays down his – or her – life in the service of others.

Many of us do this as parents. Once children come along, any caring parent is committed to dozens, nay, hundreds of sleepless or disturbed nights, and endless worry, which doesn’t stop when your offspring embark on teenage adventures or leave home. The bank of Mum & Dad – or the parental taxi service – are the way many parents lavish their love on their children. It’s normal. It’s natural. In fact, we are wired to go to extreme lengths for the sake of our children – and to worry about them ceaselessly!

What’s more remarkable is that some of us go to similar extremes for the sake of members of our church family.

Blessed_Marie-Anne_BlondinTake Blessed Marie-Anne Blondin. She lived 200 years ago in Canada – at a time when there was a church rule that parishes couldn’t run mixed-sex schools. Parishes usually couldn’t afford to run two schools! But she lobbied for the rule to be lifted and eventually formed a congregation of religious women to teach in mixed-sex schools. She was extremely successful – until a manipulative priest moved in, wrested control from her, and eventually had her forbidden from being re-elected as Mother Superior.

Sr Marie could have fought – but she chose not to. Her congregation had already grown and flourished, and she had a strong sense of God guiding her through the harsh decisions now being imposed upon her. First she was moved away to be headmistress at a distant school; then she was recalled to the Motherhouse, where she was kept to domestic chores, mostly in the laundry and ironing room. She wrote: “As for me, my Lord, I bless Divine Providence a thousand times for the maternal care she shows me in making me walk the way of tribulations and crosses”. To a novice who asked her one day why she, the Foundress, was kept aside in such lowly work, she simply replied with kindness: “The deeper a tree sinks its roots into the soil, the greater are its chances of growing and producing fruit”.

Prevented from being called “Mother” by those in authority, Mother Marie-Anne did not jealously hold on to her title of Foundress; rather she chose annihilation, just like Jesus, “her crucified Love”, so that her Community might live. However, she didn’t renounce her mission of spiritual mother of her Community. She offered herself to God for the sins which were committed in the Community” and she daily prayed to Saint Anne for her spiritual daughters. Like any prophet charged with a mission of salvation, Mother Marie-Anne lived persecution by forgiving without restriction, convinced that “there is more happiness in forgiving than in revenge”.

The story I have just shared with you is not that of a weakling, but that of a powerful woman strong enough to sacrifice herself in imitation of Christ. She sensed when God was calling her to stand up in the face of bishops and challenge the status quo; she also sensed when God was calling her to an act of great humility.

The Church needs women like Sr Marie-Anne, women who see the new needs of the church in the present age and dedicate their whole life to working for it, choosing to deploy the weapons of humility and boldness as appropriate.

The Church also needs priests who are men after God’s own heart. We need men who can do better than the bishops and priests Blessed Marie-Anne encountered.

Where do these priests and sisters come from? They come from among us.

Parents, are you praying that any of your children or godchildren should receive a calling? I know this can feel like a threat. You do not want your children to suffer hardship or make the sacrifices which priesthood or religious life demands. So I will offer you some advice to put your minds at rest. It is the realisation I came to when I stopped saying “no” to God.

Do you believe that Jesus is wiser than you are? He is the Great Teacher, the Lord of the Universe. Can you trust that he knows better than you do what will be best for each of your children?

Do you believe that Jesus loves each one of your children more than you could ever imagine? He laid down his life on the Cross for each one of them, after all! And surely if he loves them so much, he will not choose anything that causes needless harm to them!

Do you want Jesus to be Lord of your life, and that of your children? It is very easy to live with Jesus as your spiritual advisor. He makes suggestions; you make decisions. If you only do what Jesus suggests when you like His ideas, he is not your Lord. But if you give up your power of veto and allow him to make all the decisions, then you have climbed into the passenger seat and given him the wheel.

The beautiful second reading today speaks of our status as God’s children – and promises that we will be “like him”. The challenge to parents is that if you cling to your own children, you are really hoping they will be “like you” – it’s only when you allow them to be God’s children that you give them permission to be “like God”!

So pray with me, if you dare, the following prayer. Please ONLY repeat each line after me if you are comfortable saying it:

Dear Jesus, I give you each one of my children – my grandchildren – my godchildren.

Thank you for loving them, for dying on the Cross so each one of them could enter heaven.

Thank you for allowing each one to be adopted into God’s family.

Now I entrust each child to God.

Heavenly Father, call each child to that path in life which is truly best.

Lord Jesus Christ, I trust in you.

Jesus, I trust in you.

The Colour of Martyrdom

Homily at St Philip Evans for Maundy Thursday, 2018.

What colour of martyr will you be?

This may seem a strange question, but tonight is a celebration of martyrdom.

That word, martyr, may be an uncomfortable word. Often we hear it in the news in connection with a terrorist who has carried out some atrocity, killing innocent victims and themselves in the process. But the word has a long history.

In Greek, a martyr is simply a witness. A martyr is a person who makes it clear what they believe. Any Christians who publicly acknowledged that they were followers of Jesus were ‘martyrs’. In the earliest centuries of Christendom, such believers were persecuted, and if captured could suffer ‘red martyrdom’: their blood would be spilt, by the sword, by a wild beast, or by crucifixion. From Saints Stephen and John the Baptist, to Blessed Oscar Romero and the 21 Coptic Christians killed by Isis, every age has mourned and celebrated its red martyrs. But these are not the only kind.

Last Saturday, a terrorist took some shoppers hostage in a small town in southern France. He released most, but kept one woman to bargain with – until a policeman, Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame, stepped forward and offered to take her place. Officer Beltrame, who grew up with no particular faith, had become a Catholic in 2010 and went to Mass regularly. Now he showed the depth of his love by freely offering himself – an act for which he paid with his life. Pope Francis has called this a “generous and heroic act”.

Last summer, the pope declared that the Catholic Church will recognise a new category of saint – one who ‘offers their life for others’. Heroic acts like those of Lt. Col. Beltrame and St Maxmilian Kolbe, who gave their life to set another person free, and of Chiara Petrillo and St Gianna Molla, who risked their life to save their unborn children, are royal acts, made of one’s own free will, embracing the high standard set when Our Lord himself said that ‘greater love has no-one than the one who lays down their life for a friend’. We might call this a ‘purple martyrdom’, since purple is the colour both of royalty and of sorrow.

Few of us will have the opportunity to be purple martyrs, but all of us can aspire to another kind of martyrdom – that of living a life of daily service. In the early church, they spoke of ‘white martyrs’ who were monks or hermits, abandoning all their worldly comforts to follow Christ in a radical way. We are not all called to the extreme form of this, but we are all called to a kind of ‘grey martyrdom’, where we put ourselves out to love our neighbour in the context of our daily life. “Wash one another’s feet,” said Our Lord to his apostles. So must we.

Today, I would like to give a special word of thanks to volunteers from our community who have faithfully taken Holy Communion to the sick and housebound members of this parish. Liz, David and Carol have asked to step down after many years of service. Without them, Holy Communion would have been a rare treat, rather than a weekly gift, for the precious souls they visited regularly. Tonight we will commission new extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, recently trained to minister in church. My question to our new and serving ministers who assist at Mass is this: which of you will volunteer to replace Carol, David & Liz in this ministry of visiting, which is one form of grey martyrdom?

And now we are to celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. What kind of martyr was Our Lord?

He was surely a white martyr, because he poured out his life in service of all who came seeking his healing touch and heavenly teaching.

He was surely a red martyr, because on the night we celebrate tonight, he was taken by force and sentenced to death.

But he was also a purple martyr. In his divinity, he had the power to call upon a legion of angels to rescue him. In his humanity, he had found strength not to flee from the garden but to tarry there in the expectation of capture. As the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, he had royally conspired with His Father and the Holy Spirit to agree that he should take frail human flesh, in order to become a sacrifice for the sins of the world.

For this reason, the opening prayer of tonight’s Mass declares that “He handed himself over”. Yes, he was betrayed by Judas and seized by the Temple Guards; but no less than Lt. Col. Beltrame, he chose to become a hostage for our sins. It is from that word ‘hostage’ we get our word ‘host’; and just as the Israelites of old had to eat of the passover lamb to be spared the curse of death, so we must eat of the Lamb of God to enter with Christ into eternal life. St Thomas Aquinas knew this, and wrote a hymn in praise of Our Saving Victim – “O Salutaris Hostia“.

O saving Victim, opening wide
The gate of heaven to man below,
Our foes press on from every side,
Thine aid supply, Thy strength bestow.

Our Lord does indeed strengthen us. He aids us to be his witnesses, his martyrs, in this world. Purple or red? White or grey? What colour of martyr will you choose to be?

Oil Stocks and Ribbons

At this evening’s Mass, we will receive the holy oils blessed by Archbishop George at yesterday’s Chrism Mass. Today the Sacred Chrism will be brought up marked with a red ribbon, a reminder that when we are confirmed we pledge to be “a witness to Christ in the Church and in the world“. It’s not likely, in 21st Century Wales, that we will be targeted for what we believe – but it’s not impossible. Our own patron, Saint Philip Evans, knew this was a very likely fate for a Catholic priest in his day, and he became a red martyr. Every confirmed Christian has declared before God that if He should choose us for the unexpected gift of red martyrdom, we will gratefully accept it.

Today the Oil of the Sick will be dressed with purple ribbon. The anointing of the sick asks God for a special “re-confirmation” giving us strength to bear a particular sickness gracefully. But the purple ribbon will also remind us of our bittersweet and royal calling to be ready to accept death in the service of others.

Today the Oil of Catechumens will be dressed with white ribbon. Everyone who is baptised must learn the basic Christian skill of laying down one’s life for others; and if we do not reach the dizzy heights of doing so as a hermit, nun or monk, we can at least aspire to the hidden fame of serving our neighbour in unseen ways, the grey martydom.

 


Acknowledgement: With gratitude to Revd Dr Giles Fraser – partly inspired by the linked Radio 4 Thought for the Day.

Footnote: Ancient sources speak of both white martyrdom and green (or blue) martyrdom. The terms are used inconsistently. The earliest references have white martyrs as the true aescestics who abandon comforts for the monastic or eremitical life, while the green martyrs don’t go to that extreme, practicing penances in the context of their worldly life. Later usage sometimes switches these with the green martyrs as the hermits in the (green) countryside.

What will you do for the man upon the Cross?

Homily at St Philip Evans, on Palm Sunday, Year B.

What will you do for the man upon the Cross?

You could betray him, like Peter. If someone asks whether you are a Catholic, or even Christian, you could cough politely and try to avoid the subject.

What will you do for the man upon the Cross?

You could become a secret follower, like Joseph of Arimathea. You could study his teachings and pray to him, and hope no-one finds out. But when you are put to the test, if you risk your own peace by giving him your tomb, he will give you in exchange his resurrection garments!

What will you do for the man upon the Cross?

You could follow him quietly in public, hoping others will not notice, like the young man who fled from the garden.

What will you do for the man upon the Cross?

You could become a loving follower, like the woman who poured perfumed oil upon His feet. You can show your love for him by saying grace before meals in public places; by wearing a cross or hanging one in your home, or even placing a Holy Week poster in the window of your home.

What will you do for the man upon the Cross?

In this story of the Passion, so many people turn away from Jesus and few give him comfort. Which character have you found yourself in so far? Which one will you be this Holy Week? When he fears being alone in the Garden of Gethsemane, will you watch with him and pray on Thursday night? When his disciples flee on Friday, will you be found at the foot of the Cross? When he rises on Easter Night, will you be there at the Great Vigil?

He loves you. This is the week, of all weeks, to show love in return for love. But love is of the will, and needs your decision. What will YOU do for the man upon the Cross – the man who died so that you could live for ever?

We can’t go on as we are…

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 4th Sunday of Lent, Year B.

“We can’t go on as we are!”

Pity the poor prophets of the Old Testament. Sometimes it seemed like the whole world was against them – the kings, the people – even the priests! Yet the prophets knew that God had given them a message, and so they spoke: “Don’t be like the world around you! Keep God’s Law!”

Every community of religious believers is pulled in two directions. One direction is outwards, to be like all the other people we know. The other direction is upwards, towards the higher values that God stands for.

Most religions on this planet agree about some basic values. Be good. Say sorry, please and thank you – a lot! Treat other people the way you would like to be treated. Be kind to people who can’t repay your good deeds. Be mindful of others.

If we only promote these things, we won’t have many arguments with Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims or atheists. We will continue to walk in the glow of being seen as nice, kind, caring people. Indeed, just doing that makes us so attractive that sometimes other people want to join our community just because we care.

I always say to people who want to become Catholic: “If you’re doing this because you’ve met some really nice Catholics and want to be part of us, go slowly. Sooner or later you will meet some horrible Catholics. What is it that will make you want to still be a Catholic then? Don’t join until you have a good answer!”

It would be so easy for me, as your parish priest, to set out some goals that we could get behind and lots of people would cheer for. Let’s do something about plastic waste. Let’s tidy up litter in our community. Let’s help the homeless.

Don’t get me wrong. All of these are good things. Maybe some of us here are called, personally, to get deeply involved in one of those causes. But we’re a small community, and if we gave centre stage to one of those projects, there wouldn’t be room for our core project: Discovering Christ.

You might have heard a story wrongly attributed to St Francis of Assisi, that he once told his followers to walk in silence through a village, doing good deeds. “Preach the Gospel at all times. If you have to, use words.” There are two problems with the story. First, St Francis never actually said it. Second, if you think about the message – it is utter rubbish!

How can anyone know about Jesus, if we never mention his name?

If my personal religion is about being a kind person who never mentions Jesus, I might inspire others to be kind people who never mention Jesus. In which case, if we are only following the “Gospel of nice”, there is no need to say prayers, go to Mass or even get baptised. But what does Jesus say about this?

“If you believe in me,” says Jesus, “you shall have eternal life.”

That word “believe” is misleading. It’s not just about holding an idea in your head. Better to translate it as: “If you put your trust in me, you will have eternal life.” You can believe that a rickety bridge will hold your weight without testing it out. But when you put your trust in that bridge, then your life is truly on the line!

Ominously, Jesus says “If you refuse to put your trust in me, you will be condemned.”

My dear brothers and sisters, we are surrounded by a lot of Catholics who have missed the point of their faith. They think that all that is required is to be a kind person, and pop into church at Christmas and Easter because it feels nice. By baptism, each one of them has been made a temple of the Holy Spirit. But each week they dishonour that temple – because sacrifice is not offered there on the Lord’s Day.

Last week, the Vatican issued a letter about traps people can fall into these days. We can so easily fall into the trap of thinking that if we behave kindly to others, we will earn the right to go to heaven. That is not what Jesus teaches us. No, Jesus would be lifted up on the Cross, unlocking the gates of heaven. “Follow me! I will show you the way!” And following him means not only loving our neighbour, but doing what we’ve come here to do today, celebrating Eucharist and praying the Lord’s Prayer.

Sixty years ago, we were a defensive church. We weren’t allowed to go to the services of other Christians, and marrying out of the Catholic faith was a cause of shame. Then, after the Second Vatican Council, we opened up to the world – but lost confidence in the treasure we had been entrusted with, which is the call to follow Jesus within his original community of faith, the Catholic faith. When we lack confidence, we can hide behind the nice, inoffensive, “Let’s be kind to each other” kind of religion. Even some of the priests you may have met prefer this kind of faith, because it doesn’t cause trouble.

But our First Reading today began with a warning that even priests can lose sight of God’s commands. This is why I have always tried to be the kind of priest who puts God’s commands front and centre. Plenty of other charities and community groups will encourage you to love your neighbour and care for our planet. If I don’t lift up the Lord Jesus so you can follow him, who else will do that for you?

We can’t go on as we are. We must become a community of believers unafraid to life up Jesus in the sight of others. On Palm Sunday I’ll begin to set out our plans for how we will all be able to take part in the Discovering Christ course. We can’t go on as we are – but we don’t have to. Find our more next week!

Do You Look Like Jesus?

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Do you look like Jesus?

There’s a story about a little girl who was puzzled about God. “Mummy, our Sunday School teacher said that God is bigger than we are. He said God is so big that He could hold the world in His hands. Is that true?”

“Yes,” said Mum. “That’s true, darling.”

“But Mummy, the teacher also said that God comes to live inside us when we get baptised and receive Holy Communion. Is that true, too?”

“Yes,” said Mum. “That’s right. That’s what happens.”

The little girl was now truly puzzled. “So Mum, if God is bigger than us and He lives inside us, wouldn’t He show through?”


When Our Lord took Peter, James and John up Mount Tabor, he wanted them to see something that would help them understand who He was. Jesus glowed with the light of God. But if Jesus is within us, shouldn’t we should glow with God’s presence? If not with ethereal light, then at least by our actions. And this Second Sunday of Lent is the day set out by the Church to invite everyone who wants to live the fullness of our Catholic life to examine our lives and go to confession.

It’s easy to examine our lives against a list of “Don’ts”. Next Sunday our first reading will be the Ten Commandments, many of which are “Thou Shalt Nots”. It’s much more challenging to try to understand what God is asking us to DO. God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Did God want a human being to be killed as part of a religious ritual? No, of course not. But was God testing Abraham to see if this faithful man would follow God’s will whatever the cost? Oh yes.

Can you imagine the inner turmoil Abraham must have experienced before setting out with Isaac? Any Dad would have been appalled at the very idea. For Abraham, his son Isaac was already a miracle-baby who carried God’s promise to be father of a multitude. And yet Abraham must have been supremely sure of what God was asking to even set out on this journey of sacrifice.

When God asks us to do something more for him, we might become angry. What do we have to sacrifice within out own ego or comfortable lifestyle? Yet the depth of our anger is itself a sign that God truly is challenging us to change, because we’re also aware of that divine calling within us: “We can’t go on as we are!”

I’m going to run through some headings now… if one of these makes you feel angry, it might just be God inviting you to make a deeper change this Lent. And as I speak of each expectation, ask yourself, “In this area of my life, do I look like Jesus? Is He bursting out of me?”

God expects that we WORSHIP as Jesus honoured his Father. Do we speak to God when we are gathered with our family and friends? Grace before meals? A moment of prayer each day when the family is gathered in one place? In your family, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we CONNECT with other members of our church community. When was the last time you came to a church social event? If you don’t normally stay for coffee after Sunday morning Mass, what stops you? If you are free this Wednesday evening, are you planning on coming to the Station Mass with Archbishop George? Jesus ate and drank and enjoyed time with his disciples. In this community, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we EXPLORE our faith and deepen our knowledge. When did you last pick up a Christian book? Are you reading this Lent’s Walk With Me or our Christmas gift of Rediscover Jesus? If you don’t normally come to our parish “Connect & Explore” groups, what stops you? The boy Jesus asked questions in the Temple, and as a man spoke to crowds of thousands. In your hunger to learn God’s word, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we VOLUNTEER our time and talents for the good of this parish and the world around us. Many things can be done even while we are at Sunday Mass – we are blessed with so many altar servers and welcomers. We need more people willing to sing and help with music, though. Some tasks can be done at times which suit you – the church needs to be cleaned at some point in the week, and we need more volunteer cleaners. Jesus stepped up and helped people even when he was weary. In the way you serve this parish and the wider community, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we INVITE people to step into our community. Today’s prayers are a call to confession especially for those among us who, already baptised, now wish to become full members of the Catholic Church this Easter. We rejoice! But our church will not be complete until all the people of Llanedeyrn, Pentwyn, Pontprennau and St Edeyrn’s Village are worshipping with us. One easy thing to do is to take one of these fliers and invite a friend to come to the Friday lunchtime talk at the Cathedral during Lent. Jesus looked at his future disciples and said, “Come and follow me!” In the way you introduce your friends to our Catholic community, do you look like Jesus?

God expects that we INVEST in the work of the church. Today we have an opportunity to support CAFOD in its work empowering people in countries who don’t enjoy our level of wealth. Next month we will be looking at the financial needs of our own parish for the coming year. The apostles had a fund to help the poor, and Jesus praised generous giving to the Temple.* In the way you use your money, do you look like Jesus?

God has high expectations of us. None of us can do everything, but all of us can do something. Perhaps one or two of the things I have mentioned have stirred a sense of discomfort in you. If you’re aware of avoiding something God is calling you do to, I’ve got good news. First, decide in your heart to do it. Next, come and talk to me in the confessional about why you’ve been avoiding God’s call. Most importantly, go and do it! And then, you will look a little bit more like Jesus!

expectations


* A very good summary of how Jesus and the Apostles supported the poor is on this page by Jehovah’s Witnesses. While I don’t share their views about the ‘world to come’, and don’t endorse any links that may go from that page, they do fairly summarise the things that Jesus said and did!

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!