Thresholds and Foundations

Sherry Weddell famously introduced the Catholic world to the ‘thresholds of discipleship’ in her seminal work, Forming Intentional Disciples. But Sherry makes no secret of the fact that the thresholds were not her own invention, but the discovery of two evangelical Christians, Don Everts and Doug Schaupp. I have now had the opportunity to read their book, I Once Was Lost, and reflect on what further insights they bring to the great task of making disciples. Page numbers cited like this refer to the 2008 paperback edition. The publishers also offer relevant online resources.

Both Everts and Schaupp are university campus ministers in the USA, Everts working in Colorado and Schaupp in California.12 From the start of the 1990s they sensed a cultural shift: postmodern youth were no longer willing to accept claims about Jesus and Christianity made by authority figures; they now required authentic witnesses.15 After working with more than 2000 young people making the journey into Christian faith, they noticed a very predictable pattern of conversion, represented by the thresholds; despite taking time to debate possible counterexamples, Everts and Schaupp find that the thresholds continue to be a reliable description of the path of conversion. At the end of the book114 they offer a suggestion by Shannon Lamb that the pathway to a marriage could be used as analogy to committment to Christ, and I use that framework here. They also note that there are five stages in the growth of the grain used by Jesus in the parable of the sower: seed, stalk, head, full grain, ripe.21 Yet Jesus also spoke of the growth of grain as mysterious and unpredictable!18-19

Attraction (Trust)

We can only share the Gospel effectively in a relationship of trust – and the sad reality is that not everyone will come to trust us. We can work on being more open by learning not to defend our own viewpoint, become condescending or argue back; we must beware the temptaton to avoid other people or become so tender that we bruise easily.34-35

The book concludes by returning to the beginning: an evangelist must have a servant heart and must lovingly care for the people they come into relationship with. Only in a trusting relationship, earned by loving service, does it become possible to discern where an individual might be along the journey to Christ.133-134

Flirting with Jesus (Curiosity)

Non-Christians pass through different levels of curiosity. First comes awareness – they realise these is such a thing as Christians. Second comes engagement – a willingness to spend time with the Christians they trust, hearing what they have to say. The highest level is exchange – entering into dialogue and being willing to share their own opinons.52-53 We may note that evangelistic courses such as Alpha create the space precisely where people can share their own opinions.

There was a time when it was said, “Just behave kindly to people, and eventually they will ask you to give an account of what motivates you – then you can witness.” This no longer seems to work in the postmodern generation – Christians can easily get stuck in the box of being “kind people” whose kindness needs no further explanation. To get unstuck, we may need to be provocative. Use parables and seek to break out of conventional “either/or” scenarios. You may need to think out loud: “I wonder how many people around here think of spiritual things? I wonder how many people here pray?”56-60

Surviving the First Row (Openness to Change)

It is possible to create an event designed to promote openness. Think of the participants not as seekers but as skeptics or cynics. Such an event should not have overt worship music or prayer, but the arts may be used to communicate encounter with God; topical movies and stories can also be used. There should be clear leadership which presents something about who the real Jesus is, but this event shouldn’t have an altar call – the participants won’t be ready for it.79-80

Dating with a Purpose (Seeking)

A Seeker, in threshold language, is a person who is specifically asking questions about Jesus. This goes beyond general questions about God – a Seeker has heard the Christian claim that Jesus is our Teacher, God incarnate, and wishes to investigate this further. A true Seeker asks these questions with urgency, willing to pay the price which comes with a hard answer.86-88 Seekers can be appropriately exposed to the practices of believers: worship, Bible Study, prayer, church socials and service projects.85 But in service projects, there needs to be an explicit presentation of the Gospel; we cannot expect participants will join the dots for themselve and link the teaching of Jesus to the volunteers’ motivation.101

A possible format for a Seeker Group is a GIG: Group Investigating God. Consider offering a scripure passage (Gospels seem to work best) on a printed sheet where the investigator can highlight, circle, etc. Take 5 inutes to work on the sheet on your own, and then share what you highlighted.93 It is good to set out clear rules and expectations in a Seeker Group, such as:

  • You must grow!
  • Be curious; ask questions.
  • Share honestly.
  • Take risks.
  • Listen to others.

Seekers are likely to ask the question about why God allows suffering. The best response is generally not abstract philosophy but a personal testimony of how you have experienced God’s presence the midst of your own suffering. You may also find citing C. S. Lewis useful.91

An event aimed at true Seekers can appropriately include an Altar Call. But discernment is needed with each person who responds by coming forward. Who has actually committed their life to Jesus, and thereby crossed the fifth threshold? Who is simply declaring that they are interested in Jesus and want to know more, signalling that they are at the fourth?85

The Wedding (Intentional Discipleship)

Will you follow Jesus? No groom would get away with pledging to love his wife four days a week and trying to be there for her in hard times – he has to go all-in. There can be an urgency about challenging a Seeker to cross the line and make a committment before their questioning heart cools down. The challenge must be clear – not dressed up in obscuring church language, but not over-simmplified either. The challenge is not to “say a sinner’s prayer”. The challenge is to become a follower of Jesus, to seek His will and live by His commandments.112

Like the third threshold, this one can be surrounded by intense spiritual warfare. Potential converts may be gripped by a ‘fear of change’ which requires specific ministry.111

Surviving the Honeymoon

Following the key moment of making a personal commitment to Christ, there’s often a honeymoon period of around three weeks, followed by a deep spiritual attack. It is good for a discipler to intensively mentor a new Christian with 2-3 contacts a week for the first 6-8 weeks or so. The discipler should make it clear that such intensity is useful (in case it feels heavy) but does not set the pattern for the long term relationship (lest the new Christian expect enduring regular contact).126-129

In the early days after committing to Christ, the new convert will have many emotions to process and may wonder if they made an authentic decision. After these days, the discipler will need to help the new Christian form a good habit of regular prayer, Bible reading, witnessing when appropriate, serving others and taking their place in a worshipping community. Towards the end of the honeymoon, the discipler should ensure that the new Christian has a stable relationship with believers who will support their onward journey in that fellowship.

Catholics may note some similarity with the Mystagogia period from initiation at the Easter Vigil to the time around Pentecost seven weeks later. Insofar as there is a real change in the new Catholic’s life – access to the sacraments – and the cessation of a discipleship group (the RCIA fellowship) then attention to the new member is important. But we must also recognise that the sacraments of initiation celebrate publicly a decision to be a disciple of Christ which may have been made interiorly some months earlier – not fitting neatly with the date of Easter. It is equally important to offer spiritual mentorship at the time of personal conversion to Christ.

Invitation Always

Homily at Sion Community chapel for the 2019 New Evangelisation Training Summit #NESummit19 on the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

On this very weekend, fifteen years ago, I was in trouble.

At the time, I was a student at seminary. We were allowed to go out after Sunday lunch – but we had to be back for evening prayer at half past six.

With another student, I had driven to a meeting to plan a youth retreat. One of the young women involved had asked for a lift home. I worked out that we had time – but only just – to drop her off and get back for evening prayer. After all, she needed our help, and it was the right thing to do.

We got lost!

Eventually, we found the right road. But we arrived back at the seminary five minutes after the start of Evening Prayer. The other student and I had to make a decision – should we go into the chapel late, and hope no one noticed? Or should we say our own evening prayer separately?

We chickened out and decided not to go into chapel. So we took out our prayer books and said the official Prayer of the Church together.

Near the end of Sunday Evening Prayer, there’s a line which is taken from the Gospel of the day.* It was just as well we hadn’t gone in to chapel that evening, because we collapsed in fits of laughter when we read out loud the words: “We are useless servants – we have only done our duty!”

Laughter aside, there is a serious matter at hand here. Jesus wants us to know that God expects us to do our duty. On that day, my colleague and I were preparing for a youth festival where young people would be encouraged to know Jesus present in the Blessed Sacrament. Today, we are gathered in this chapel because we want our fellow parishioners to be inspired to share God’s Good News. We want many members of our local parishes and dioceses to join us, confidently proclaiming the message of Jesus anew to those who have heard it but failed to heed its call.

We will face obstacles, even from the clergy. Yesterday, we heard a seminar from Fr James Mallon about how to promote evangelisation when your parish priest seems reluctant. Sometimes it feels like the obstacles come from a higher level, too. Just last week, a story popped up on my Facebook feed claiming that Pope Francis had rebuked a woman for encouraging two people to become Catholics. Oh dear! Can it be true, that the Pope doesn’t want us to evangelise?

The first rule of the Internet is always: check your sources! A little digging found the true report. In this case a woman who belonged to an unnamed movement had proudly presented her ‘converts’ to Pope Francis, in effect saying, “Look what I did! These people are Catholic because of me!”

The Pope was clearly concerned by her personal attitude, and perhaps also because he knew something about the lay movement she belonged to. In that particular moment, he discerned – rightly or wrongly – that these converts had been brought into the Church by the woman’s pushy personality rather than a pure attraction. Therefore, he is reported as saying, in that moment:

“Madam, evangelisation yes, proselytism no.”

Pope Francis, 5 Sept 2019, Maputo, Mozambique

What is proselytism? The Catholic definition is set out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and in a joint study document with the World Council of Churches. In short we’re doing it wrong when:

  • we don’t respect the existing faith of a person, or target people with a particular belief;
  • we speak negatively about other religious traditions;
  • we exert undue physical, emotional or moral pressure, or exploit intellectual or emotional weakness;
  • we offer beneficial incentives to new converts.

Historically, over the last 200 years, Catholic Church in Great Britain has grown by attraction and immigration. For migrants, it’s simple; their faith binds them together and the church is where they can find a safe space to speak their own language and meet others of their own culture. For converts it’s more complicated: over the 12 years I’ve been in parish ministry and responsible for RCIA, I reckon that four out of five converts have been attracted by the ‘nice caring Catholics’ they’ve met; only one in five has had a spiritual or intellectual conversion to what the Catholic Church holds dear.

In that respect, many of our converts are like the Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses I’ve met. I often ask people to tell me the story of how their own religion has changed their life for the better. The kind of answer I hear is almost always that they met some kind people from that religious group who helped them in an hour of need. The helped person joins because they feel wanted, not because of the doctrines of the group.

This is as true for Catholics as it is for other religions. I always say to such aspiring members: “I’m glad you’ve met some nice and supportive Catholics. One day you’re going to meet some horrible Catholics. Do you know what will make you want to stay in the Church when that happens? If so, you’re ready to take the next step.” Attraction on its own is not enough to guard against the day something repulsive happens. We must use that attraction to open up conversations about Jesus, and invite people to choose to follow Him.

This weekend has focussed on our calling to preach the Gospel. The call is the same as it was when St Paul wrote to young Timothy: “Never be ashamed of witnessing to the Lord; guard and pass on the knowledge of Christ.” Some of you will have met discouragement and disappointment; but you are here this weekend which means you are seriously considering running NES2020 in your local community. Don’t expect any thanks for this. You are useless servants, only doing your duty. But persevere. Maybe no-one else in the church will thank you, but the Home Mission Office and the Lord will!

There is a middle ground between attraction and proselytism. It’s not always enough to be nice, kind, Catholics and wait for people to ask us why. We do need to speak about our prayer life and our faith. We do need to respond to subtle nudges from the Holy Spirit. We do need to remember that there are three million people in the UK who told a survey that they would go to church if someone invited them. If we build a culture of invitation, if we run our Masses and other church events as if we are always expecting to introduce a brand-new guest to our community, if we inspire our fellow parishioners to believe we are called to grow, not die, as an institution, we will see fruit. So I would like to expand upon Pope Francis’ words and leave you with this call:

“Friends, evangelisation yes, proselytism no; invitation, always!”

Note to readers: Strictly speaking, Saturday Vespers takes a line from the Gospel of Year A, Sunday Lauds from Year B, and Sunday Vespers from Year C. But it happened to be Year C, as it is this year, so forgive me for over-simplifying for an easy read!

Anointing the Sick

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

Mass for Anointing the Sick – Acts 28:7-10 and Mark 16:15-20

I don’t wish to alarm you unduly, but I hope you’re aware that today’s Mass includes the anointing of the sick?

We all know how that works, don’t we? Unexpectedly, your Uncle Jimmy or Aunty Breda, who hasn’t been to Mass for twenty years, is suddenly rushed into hospital and the doctor looks at you darkly. You learn your relative has about 36 hours left in this world and you know what you have to do. You call the priest; the priest brings the holy oil, gives the blessing, and your loved one goes quietly into the hands of God. So when the priest comes through the door to give the Sacrament of Anointing, you know the Grim Reaper is waiting just outside… and that’s how our Catholic faith has worked for generations.

You know what? It’s not meant to be like that!

I mean yes, if you call a priest to someone’s deathbed God will forgive their sins through the Sacrament of Anointing, and that will help them go to heaven, but we’re not exactly following the instructions Our Lord left for us!

Can you think of even one example in the Bible where Our Lord Jesus Christ, or one of his apostles, was called to a sick person, and said to them ‘Your sins are forgiven – now go to heaven?’

No. You won’t find that anywhere. The only person who got a free pass straight to Heaven was the Good Thief. Remember him? He confessed next to Jesus when they were both being crucified – and though his actions might have been sick, his body was perfectly fine until they nailed him there.

So what did Our Lord do when he was on earth? He opened the eyes of the blind, helped lame people to walk – and when his friend Lazarus died, he brought him back from the dead. We’ve just the Gospel where Jesus tells his apostles to go out and do the same thing – heal the sick. And they did!

We read in the Book of Acts how Peter and John used the name of Jesus to heal a man who couldn’t walk, begging outside the Jewish Temple. Both Peter and Paul raised young people from the dead. And in our first reading today, St Paul is on the island of Malta, where he is asked to do something about a very upset stomach – and by God’s grace, he can!

What do all of these healings have in common? Each time, either the sick person or one of their friends goes in search of a minister. They have hope that God’s power can touch their lives, and they’re not afraid to ask for it. It might be a blind man crying out ‘Jesus have mercy on me’ – or a desperate father pleading for Jesus to come to his dying daughter – or a bold group of friends making a hole in a roof so they can drop their mate right in friend of Jesus’ nose! But their hope drives them to take a step of faith.

A few years ago, I was going to visit a friend, who lived outside my parish, for her birthday. She rang to ask if I could bring the holy oil to anoint her friend who was suffering from back pain. When I got there, I carried out the rite of Anointing. When I did so, two remarkable things happened: the woman in pain received a momentary experience of God’s loving presence… and the pain went away.

Now in my nearly twelve years of priesthood, that was only the second time that a remarkable physical recovery quickly followed an anointing, and the first time, as far as I know, that someone had a personal experience of God’s presence. But these touches of God’s presence can and do happen; the Sacraments become more fruitful when celebrated in a community with strong faith, and that day I think it was significant that a believing friend of the sick person had the faith to ask for the Sacrament.

Now, I know that many of us do pray when someone in our family is sick. Some of us might even have called the priest early in someone’s sickness for them to receive the Sacrament. I don’t want anyone to feel condemned if they’ve prayed for a long time and not seen any healing. God is the one who decides where and when the gifts of healing are given. I know that if we don’t ask, we don’t get. If we do ask, we may get – so today is an opportunity to ask and see what God will do.

If the god you believe in couldn’t heal someone through the Sacrament, your god is too small.

If the god you believe in wouldn’t heal someone through the Sacrament, your god is not the one Jesus called Father.

If the god you believe in hasn’t healed someone through the Sacrament, isn’t it time to give God another chance? Jesus teaches us to be persistent in our prayer.

The Sacrament of Anointing the Sick is God’s gift for those who are sick to the point where our lifestyle is affected. It’s not for coughs and colds which will pass in a week or two. It’s for afflictions of our bodies and of our minds. If you suffer with migraines, or depression, or anything chronic in your head which puts you off balance, that’s a good enough reason to come forward. If your body is past its peak and daily living involves aches and pains, that’s also enough reason. At this service, no-one is going to ask you why you want to receive the Sacrament – that is between you and God. We have hope that sometimes God will work a wonder in our body or in our mind as a sign of the Kingdom to come. And we have certainty that everyone who is anointed receives both the forgiveness of sins, and a promise of God’s strength to endure.

Remember, you don’t have to have a Mission for a sick person to be anointed. If there’s someone who’s sick and who’s not here this afternoon, they can ask their parish priest to come at any time. But for you who are here, it is time to take a step of faith. Come!

Children of the Light

Sermon for members of Couples for Christ at the shrine of Nazaré in Portugal. Votive Mass of Our Lady Queen & Mother with readings of the day.

Try to imitate God. As children of his that he loves.

On this day, in 1971, a child was born in Italy. Chiara Badano was given the gift of deep faith, and as a teenager she already knew that Christ wanted to be Lord of her life. She did her best to follow him, living exactly the kind of life that St Paul was talking about.

She chose purity, not impurity. We too must choose to keep our bodies for marriage, and not even choose to look at impure images.

She chose to avoid coarse talk and to make sacrifices in order to serve others cheerfully.

So successfully did she become a ‘child of the light’ that the people around her nicknamed her ‘Chiara Luce’, Clear Light!

That light shone brightly, but not for long. Today in 1990 should have been her 19th birthday… but three weeks earlier, she died from the consequences of bone cancer. Nevertheless, in the ten years during which she had been seeking to live as a follower of Christ, the light shone so strongly in her that the Church has declared her Blessed. But until she is made a saint, we cannot celebrate her Mass outside her own country.

Today’s Mass is a votive Mass of Our Lady. The light of Christ shines so brightly in the Blessed Mother that we may find her hard to imitate. Which of us can be at the same time a virgin and a mother? Who among us was conceived without sin?

Yet this raises another question. If Our Lady is perfect, why did she appear at Fatima and ask for prayers to heal her wounded heart? Eight years after the 1917 apparitions, Our Lady of Fatima appeared again to Lucia, and said: “See, my daughter, my heart surrounded by thorns which men constantly drive into it with their blasphemies and ingratitude. You, at least, try to comfort me…” – and she went on to ask all of us to offer special prayers for this intention on the first Saturday of each month.

So is Our Lady sitting at a desk in heaven, monitoring all these prayers on earth with a special app, a kind of ‘Gracebook’? “You have 100 million followers. A billion Hail Marys have been said today…” and the Blessed Mother anxiously checking every half hour to make sure that she’s still getting millions of likes?

No. In our brokenness, we might keep looking at our apps to be reassured that our friends still care, but the Blessed Mother does not suffer from insecurity. Our Lady asks us to call upon her prayers and make acts of reparation not for her sake, but for ours. She wants us not only to enter heaven, but to receive the very best experience when we get there. We store up treasure in heaven by making repeated acts of love for Jesus and Mary here on earth. Imagine the warm embrace when we meet face to face with those two people for whom we have said “I love you!” through our prayers every day of our lives!

Our Blessed Mother is also our perfect prayer partner, but although she is full of grace, she cannot share all those graces with us unless we ask. She appered to St Catherine Labouré in Paris to teach her that we must ask in order to receive in full, and she taught us the prayer, “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee” – which every night at the shrine they pray between the Glory Be and the Fatima Prayer!

We come gladly to place our prayers in Mary’s hands. The story of this shrine is rooted in such an answered prayer. One foggy day in 1182, a hunter realised his horse was about to charge over the edge of a cliff. He cried out to Our Lady, whose statue already rested near here – and his horse miraculously stopped right on the edge. This sanctuary was build as an act of thanksgiving.

We are called to purity – the purity of heart which turns away from pleasures of the flesh; and the purity of soul which cries out to Jesus and Mary wih daily acts of love.

If we cannot imitate the Blessed Virgin, we can at least imitate Blessed Chiara. But let’s aim high! After all, the psalms today has challenged us to try to imitate God! As children of his that he loves.

To make you feel my love

I’d go hungry; I’d go black and blue

Image of Jesus with red and white rays flowing from his breast and the inscription “Jesus, I Trust in You”

And I’d go crawling down the avenue

No, there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do

To make you feel my love

Bob Dylan wrote these words, and Adele made them famous a few years ago. There are times we need to know that we are loved. And we may find we are blessed with people in our lives who want to communicate to us that yes, we are truly loved, even when we’re not in a mood to receive it.

Sometimes I catch myself wishing that my closest friends would do something to show they care. If only that person would send me a birthday card, or pick up the phone…! But perhaps I’m looking for the wrong thing. Instead of wishing for things I want, what happens if I look for signs they care, expressed their own way? Then, perhaps, I might start noticing that someone is actually sharing their deepest thoughts with me, or looks happy when I’m around. And it’s the same with God. Not only can we miss the signs that other people love us – we can miss the signs that God loves us, too.

We live in a world where stuff happens. In the last 48 hours, there have been stabbings and shooting in London; a British snowboarder suffocated when he fell head-first into a snowdrift in France; and this afternoon, a lorry drove into a crowd of people in Germany. The Bible itself says there will always be wars and famines and earthquakes in the world. If we expect God to stop these things happening as a sign of His love, we’re going to be disappointed.

The world at large hasn’t changed much in two thousand years. Bad stuff always had happened, and always will happen until Jesus comes again to bring the world, as we know it, to its end. What does change, is sometimes a whole heap of trouble comes into our own life all at once. Even Queen Elizabeth II famously had a bad year – an annus horribilis – in the year Diana, Princess of Wales, died, and Windsor Castle caught fire. And no-one, except the Pope, gets prayed for more often than Queen Elizabeth – even the British National Anthem is a prayer for her!

All of us can have a bad day, a bad month or even a bad year. Perhaps we have a run of accidents; or perhaps there are several deaths or terminal illness suddenly in our extended family. At times like that, the whole world seems to be against us. So remember, on days then the world is all wrong, this is the victory over the world – our faith!

Faith is a noun, which hides a verb! To have faith is more than to believe something in your head. You can look at a rickety rope bridge, and believe it will hold your weight. But you only put your trust in it when you move your feet! So what does it mean to put our trust in God? In fact, can God be trusted?

Instead of wishing that God would fix the world on my terms, perhaps I should look for what God’s actually done to make me know his love. “These [things] are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,” wrote St John at the end of his Gospel.

Jesus appeared to St Thomas, as a sign to every future Christian who would doubt. Look! Touch! Believe! But blessed are those who will hear these words, and not see, but yet believe!

Jesus appeared to St Margaret Mary Alacoque in the 15th Century to show his Sacred Heart. Do you doubt that I love you? Here is my heart, burning with love for you!

Jesus appeared to St Faustina Kowalska in the 20th century, to show his Divine Mercy. “Paint an image of my with two rays streaming from my breast: the pale ray says I want to you become part of my body, through baptism. The red ray says I want my life to flow through you when you drink my blood. On the Sunday after Easter, honour this image, saying, ‘Jesus, I trust in you.'”

You won’t find promises of a trouble-free life in the Bible. You will find promises that God will walk with us through the darkness. When we say, “Jesus, I trust in you,” what we mean is: “Jesus, I will follow your commands even when times are hard; I know you walk with me through the darkness.” Thomas and the other apostles knew the darkness of facing the Death of Jesus, yet they were sent as messengers of hope to the whole world!

God shares with us the work of making the world a better place. In the first reading, we hear about a perfect community! Nobody was in want, because everyone gave from their wealth. But those people were in want, before that happened. And after the wealthy members had sold their property, what happened then? We have to keep working to make the world a better place! We also need to keep working to make our parish better, so each new tax year, we need to remember we have an opportunity to use Gift Aid – Toni will say something about that at the end of Mass.

Do you want to win a victory over the world? Put your trust in Jesus. Keep praying to him. Keep confessing your sins and receiving Holy Communion. Look for the signs that he loves you. They won’t always be the signs that you wish for, but they are there.

Bob Dylan, born Jewish, became a born-again Christian in 1978, and his faith inspired many of his songs. I don’t think he’d mind too much if I gave his lyrics a little tweak to speak about Jesus:

He went hungry; he was whipped for you;

And went carrying his cross, for sure,

No, there’s nothing that he wouldn’t do

To make you know his love.

The Power of Water

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Easter Vigil 2018A glass, half full of water, and a large jug, brimful of water, stand on a white cloth behind which is a red cloth embroidered with the white dove of the Holy Spirit descending.

Tonight, consider the power of water!

Water in the Bible is found in stories of new beginnings, and of escape from sin and oppression into freedom and light. Jesus promised to those seeking hope that he would give them “living water” and told the woman at the well in Samaria that with the water he would give, she would never be thirsty again. To the Jewish scholar Nicodemus, Jesus said that anyone wanting to be enter God’s kingdom must be “born again” of water and the Holy Spirit. There was that famous scene when John was baptising in the river Jordan and a voice came to heaven, “This is my beloved son! With him I am well pleased!” Just as John was welling up with pride, Jesus put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Sorry, coz, I think he means me!”

No, I made that last bit up of course. John the Baptist knew very well who Jesus was: the Lamb of God who was sacrificed for us. It’s important that we know who Jesus is and don’t get God’s message mixed up with mere stories. Earlier this year, a film called The Shape of Water did well at the Oscars. It was a fiction about a fish-god who lives in water and had the power to heal. We have a true story to celebrate tonight about The Power of Water: A man-God who offers us living water, and the power to transform our lives!

What happens when a child is born? I’m no midwife, but I know that the process begins with the “breaking of the waters” – the infant cocooned safely in the womb must pass out into the air around us. Jesus wanted Nicodemus to understand that something similar happens spiritually when we are born into God’s kingdom. First we have to die to our old, and cofortable, life. The wicked people of Noah’s day, and the Egyptians enslaving the Israelites, were drowned in water. Natalie, Helen, and Alex, you are fortunate that we do not have a full-sized font, or I would re-enact the ancient form of baptism, holding your head under water for so long that you too would nearly be drowned! When you came up, gasping for air, you would certainly know you’d been given a “new life”! By “passing through” water, you will be born again, which in Latin is re-genere; that’s why one of the prayers I will use shortly speaks of the waters of “re-generation”.

Did you notice that tonight’s Gospel ends in a strange way? We do not meet the Risen Jesus. Rather, an angel tells the women to send the apostles to Galilee, and they would find him there. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we find out what happens when the Apostles reach Galilee: Jesus gives them instructions to them, saying: Make disciples, going to all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to follow all I taught you. A disciple is someone who has committed to follow Jesus as an apprentice follows a Master. Later this year, the whole parish will be invited to “go to Galilee, and meet Jesus there”, when we launch our Galilee Groups. Natalie, Helen & Alex, these words will be fulfilled in you tonight as you are baptised, but just as a wedding is only the first day of a marriage, so a baptism is only the first day of your new life as a disciple of Christ, pledged to learn what He is teaching and to do what He is asking.

But it’s not enough to be born: the child must also draw its first breath, for which the technical name is inspiration – the Latin word “spiritus” literally means breath! And what does a baby do once it’s born? It learns quickly, becoming a master of language in just a few years. What does this mean for baptism? Yes, it’s a rebirth, but, it’s not enough to have your old life washed away by God: a baby which is born but doesn’t breathe isn’t going to last for long. This is why all three of you, together, with Emma and Daniel, will also be confirmed – I will pray that the living Breath of God, which we call the Holy Spirit, comes to live within you. Remember that living water – running water – will always have air dissolved within it!

There are two other words I would like you to think of tonight – and not only you who are being confirmed, but all of you in the congregation as you renew the promises made on your day of baptism: Aspiration, and Perspiration. Aspiration, because God’s Holy Spirit will challenge each of us onwards and upwards, until we become the very best versions of ourselves, fulfilling the dreams which God has for us. Perspiration, because God calls us to be workers for His Kingdom, empowered by His Spirit but lending our own labour. As a community we must constantly return to God, as Ezekiel called Israel to be renewed and given a clean heart.

So consider the power of water. On its own, it can bring life or destruction. With God’s blessing, it’s miraculous, and allows souls to be reborn to the life of heaven. Tonight, I will pour the waters of baptism on three souls. But from tomorrow, each one of you, whether baptised for twenty hours or eighty years, must begin anew the Easter work of pouring out living water in the service of others – for if we are not invigorated by God’s Spirit, holy water on its own will do little to transform our lives.

As an ordained priest, it is my privilege to stand-in for Jesus and pray at the altar, “Through Him, and with Him, and in Him.” But for each one of us, baptised as Temples of the Holy Spirit, we should make our own kind of priestly prayer. Recognise these three gifts which we have been given: Inspiration. Aspiration. Perspiration. “With Him, and from Him, and by Him – empowered by the Holy Spirit – as a member of the Body of Christ – my life will give you glory , Almighty Father, for ever and ever. Amen!”

Men of God

Homily for the Couples for Christ (South Region) men’s retreat at Hebron Hall, 11 November 2017

Gentlemen, today I would like to introduce you to a beautiful woman! She is called: WISDOM!

St Paul speaks about a gift of knowledge and a gift of wisdom. Knowledge is having an understanding of true things. Wisdom is about knowing the best way to do things. If you let this lady into your life, she will make a true man of you!

The wise bridesmaids Jesus spoke about are a sign of us as Christians, brides of Jesus. And gentlemen, although this may feel a bit awkward, each one of us is a bride of Christ. These ladies are our role models, always on the lookout for signs of Jesus. As Christians, you must be men of prayer, always ask Christ to guide and lead you in the decisions you make. Study his Holy Word – for there is no point praying for an answer, and ignoring the answers Jesus already gives in the Bible!

But because the Bible uses the image of Christ as a bridegroom, Jesus also teaches you, gentlemen, what it is to be a perfect husband. Jesus lays down his life for the bride he loves. You who are married, each one of you is called to lay down your life for your wife. This may mean a few big sacrifices – but it usually means lots of little ones.

What happens when you come home from work, and your wife wants to talk? Do you half-listen while reading your smartphone and mutter “yes dear” without really hearing the words? A man like Jesus, a truly wise man, will choose to put down his smartphone and give his wife half an hour of undivided attention when you are both home after a busy day. Each one of you, gentleman, has been blessed with a superpower by God. It is the power to choose to stop what you are doing and show your wife, by words and actions, “Your needs are more important than mine right now.”

If you find yourself in an argument, always ask yourself whether you are being driven by the need to win, or the real issue you are arguing about. If your wife’s solution is reasonable, don’t be afraid to say “OK”. Remember a wise saying: “The noble art of losing face will one day save the human race.”

One subject it is easy to get caught in arguments about, is money. You come from one family. Your wife comes from another family. Now you have started your own family, but the other two families need your support, remittances of money sent home. How much is a fair share for your wife’s family? How much is a fair share for your parents and their extended family? The Bible does ask you to honour your parents, but it also says that when a couple marry, they start their own household. Your first obligation is the needs of your wife and children. Beware of getting into debt because you are giving too much away. Don’t borrow unless you can see how you can repay it. But if anyone is in debt, struggling to repay, and you don’t know where to turn, I recommend this UK charity which will advise you: Turn2Us.

Once your own family needs are secure, whatever you then send to relatives and cousins is a gift. Does a “fair share” look like an equal slice for each living grandparent? For each living cousin – if one side has more cousins than the other? Is it fairer to give more to a relative who is sick? Beware – there can be more than one “fair” way to do things! Even Jesus refused to take part in an argument about dividing up two brothers’ inheritance! Why not first agree how much of your monthly income you can “give away” in total – to family, to your parish, to ANCOP and any other charities you want to support. Make a list of all the people and causes you want to help. Then let you and your wife each take a copy of the list and separately divide up your give-away pot in the way you think is fair. When you show each other the list, take the two decisions and take their average. There’s no easy way to make a better agreement – because we value different causes differently. Remember, the only fair amount to give away is zero. Anything beyond zero is not fair; it is generous, because it is an undeserved gift.

Gentlemen, in today’s world of technology, we face another grave danger. It is called pornography. It is a lie. It is a dangerous lie, because it makes us wish our women could reach impossible heights. It is a serious sin, because every time we demand it on our phones or shops, we are making a request for someone else to sin so we can have pleasure. There is no place for porn in the life of a Man of God, except the place of the confessional where you can seek spiritual healing. If this is something you struggle with, I recommend to you a website called ClicktoKick.

The Bible warns us of temptations from the world, the flesh and the devil, temptations which come in the form of money, sex and power. Jesus battled Satan in the wilderness; and you, gentlemen, are called to battle Satan in your daily lives. Your aim is to be a real man, as Jesus was a real man, wielding weapons of humility, graciousness and wisdom.

Today I have tried to offer you the company of Lady Wisdom, who guides you in doing what is right in everyday life. The Second Reading speaks of a day of judgment, when you will meet Christ. He will judge you on how well you have imitated him and embraced this gift of wisdom. Each day you must refill your lamp, asking God for strength to do the right thing, to die to yourself and serve your bride. Only in this way can each one of you become a true man of God, head of a Couple for Christ. Blessings upon you.



Home Mission Sunday

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time Year BHome Mission Sunday.p15hms

Today is Home Mission Sunday, and we’ve received a letter sent from all the Bishops of England and Wales together. You can read the full text in the parish newsletter, but I’m going to pass on our bishops’ message in my own words.

Each one of us who is Catholic shares in the duty of making Our Lord Jesus known to the people around us, inviting them to hear His Good News and join our church. We call this ‘evangelisation’, and when done in our local community, that makes it our ‘home mission’. We’re called to deepen our own faith, so that we can share it with others, sensitively and confidently. 

Pope Francis shows us that the true heart of faith is hugely attractive. He shows us how to let our faith be seen. He does this by making clear the great mercy of God, the mercy that he has received and that he shows to all. The mercy of God is God’s love in action, reaching out to every person, to each one of us in our weakness. Mercy is God’s tender embrace in lifting us up and inviting us to start again.

In the Psalm of our Mass today, we proclaimed God’s mercy with the words: “The Lord upholds my life.” Mercy appears all the more clearly when, recognising our own sinfulness, we rely totally and joyfully on the goodness of God. When Pope Francis was asked to describe himself he said, simply, “I am a sinner.” As we understand the depth of God’s never-failing mercy towards us, then we are freed to offer the same mercy to those around us. In doing so we show forth the best of our faith.

How can we proclaim God’s mercy to the people around us? We have a wonderful opportunity in the coming Jubilee Year of Mercy, established by Pope Francis, beginning this December. He asks us to “go out to every man and woman, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God!” Together let us Proclaim God’s Mercy. The readings we have heard today speak of the tests and trials of everyday life, the weariness we can feel, the conflicts we face, whether within our own hearts or from those around us. St James invites us to respond to every situation as peacemakers. That’s easier said than done! But then he tells us that our way forward is through prayer, asking the Lord for all that we need to get through the day, and to let his love be seen.

The Gospel Reading from St Mark puts it very simply. When we live our lives with trust in God as a child trusts his parents, then we will be free of so many burdens. And then our faith will be transparent, evident to others, and attractive. Then we will be proclaiming the Gospel for others to see and hear. The key, then, to showing our faith in the way we live, is to be ready to live constantly in the presence of God, knowing that God never takes his eyes off us. God gazes upon us not to catch us out, but because he loves us so much. Are we aware of that loving gaze which is upon us, and of the mercy and encouragement that flows our way? If so, we will be well able to look on others in the same way.

This trust in God and love for others is our starting point for evangelisation. From this beginning, there are many things we need to do. We must speak openly about our faith. We must show our love in concrete actions towards those most in need. We must have a loving care for those who have been hurt by life – and a special care for anyone who has been hurt within the Church, for these wounds make it particularly difficult for a person to return to the sacraments.

In many different ways – through friendship, through prayer, through conversation – we seek to reach other human beings, so that they sense in us God’s presence and loving invitation to them. Our efforts need not be complicated or heroic. As Our Blessed Lady reminds us, through our humble efforts the Lord can do great things!

Finally, our bishops want to thank each and every one of us for the witness that we already give. Our presence at Mass today is a good example. By coming to Mass we not only give due worship to God but also publicly proclaim our faith to everyone who knows of our commitment and routine. Our bishops thank us for our daily efforts in family living, the patterns of family life that we work hard to sustain. And family life is important, because for each child, the family is the first and best school of faith, of prayer and of virtuous living.

What does this mean for us here in St Philip Evans? This weekend we are asked to make a financial contribution to the Bishops’ Home Mission Fund, so there will be a retiring collection. But more practically, what can we do? It seems to me, as your parish priest, that not many of us feel confident enough to pass on the Good News of Jesus to other people. So our focus for the next three years in this parish will be on deepening and strengthening our own faith. This coming Monday, our monthly Call to Question group begins a new course, The Giftlooking at how the Holy Spirit helps us to do this. There are still places available at next month’s diocesan Proclaim’15 conference, and I will be happy to pay the costs for any parishioner who wishes to attend. In the coming months, we will begin to put in place other activities where adults and whole families can go to learn more about the message of Jesus received by our Church. This time next year we will have a Parish Mission. And most pressing at the moment, we have not yet got Children’s Liturgy up and running.

It’s vital that we provide the best possible experience of church for our children at every Sunday Mass. Our first group of volunteers are currently being DBS-checked, but nothing can be launched until they are fully checked and trained. Already, some volunteers have dropped out. We need some of you to replace them, so we can build up a healthy team where no one person is left having to share too much of the load. If we don’t pass on our faith to our children, our church will die. And only we who come to weekend Mass here are in a position to work with our children. So this responsibility is on us – and my share of the responsibility is making sure that the training we need is available. If you don’t feel ready, today, to share your faith with our children – what are you going to do about it?

Resources from the National Proclaim’15 Event in Birmingham are available online.


I Believe in the Catholic Church – the one I’m not walking away from!

Homily at St John Lloyd, for Easter, 2013

Mhairi Spence, Team GB Pentathlete

Do you remember Mhairi Spence? She was one of the Team GB pentathletes at the London 2012 Olympics. Like many of the British competitors, she was tipped for a gold medal – indeed, the last possible gold of the games, because the Pentathlon finished just before the Closing Ceremony. So on August 12 last year, Mhairi Spence stepped out. By lunchtime, following the fencing and swimming rounds, she was in ninth place and feeling confident – next came the show-jumping, which was her strongest event.

Then it all went horribly wrong.

In the Pentathlon, horses are assigned to competitors at random, and the one assigned to Miss Spence was not having a good day. Horse and rider simply didn’t click with each other, and soon Spence held the dismal tally of four downed fences and 104 penalty points. Things went from bad to worse in the final combined running-and-shooting event. Golden hope Spence finished at 21st place, a forgotten footnote of British Olympic history.

Imagine being an Olympic failure in those months when the UK was basking in Olympic Glory. Each television report and newspaper article reminded Spence that she was not one of the Team GB medalists. So she ran away – to Australia, where she could be a nobody. Asked what she did for a living, she said she worked as a hairdresser, or for the post office. And for a while, she was able to leave her broken dreams behind.

Easter Day begins for each one of us in the same low place as Mhairi Spence. Hope shattered in one cruel moment, followed by an aftermath of despair. The Apostles, excepting only the one beloved by Jesus, ran away from the foot of the Cross. On Sunday morning, two disciples from Emmaus would begin a forlorn walk towards their home, with nothing but their reminiscences for company.

But in the coldest of winters, we might yet see signs of spring.

Spence found herself on a sailing trip with other tourists, when one said to her: “Did you hear the rumour? They said there was an Olympic Athelete on the island we’ve just sailed from!” A few weeks later, in a conversation with a temporary room-mate, she was forced to admit her true identity. The room-mate “couldn’t get over it, … sharing a room with someone who had competed in London!” Where we see brokenness, others see something of great value. And this can also be true of the way we view our own church.

At this Easter Mass, we will be invited soon to renew our baptismal promises. As promises go, they don’t really sound like promises. I am going to ask you if you believe in God the Father, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit and in the Catholic Church. Surely “believing” something is something to do with ideas we hold in our heads?

Year of Faith Logo – Welsh & English

This year, the worldwide church is keeping a Year of Faith. And the word “faith” is the key. We are not just declaring that we believe in certain things as an intellectual exercise. We are declaring that we put our faith in God-the-Father, in Jesus, in the Holy Spirit and in the Catholic Church. And that requires action.

If we put our faith in God, we must keep all Ten Commandments, including the one about keeping each sabbath as a Holy Day. If we put our faith in Jesus, we will obey his command to “do this in memory of me”, by participating in Mass. If we put our faith in the Holy Spirit, we will keep asking the Spirit to live within us, to nudge us to be God’s hands, feet and voice in the world around us.

By declaring we “believe” in the Catholic Church, we are also promising to continue placing our faith in our church. This is a very dangerous thing to do – because our church is composed entirely of fallible human beings! They say you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family – and a parish is the family we share under the One Father, who is God.

Sooner or later in church communities, things go wrong. People have arguments. A word or action causes offence. And sometimes we don’t deal with that in the mature way God asks of us. It’s not uncommon for those who feel offended by something at church to move to another parish, or stop coming altogether. Let’s recognize this danger, and renew our commitment to this parish because it is God’s parish, not because of individual personalities or style.

When we renew our promise, today, to put our faith in the Catholic Church, we are pledging to make our parish the best that it can be. We are pledging that if something upsets us, we won’t walk away, but we will deal with the issue. Within a Christian community, if we disagree with another person – even a member of the clergy or parish group leader – we ought to be able to have a civil conversation. Often enough it will clear up a simple misunderstanding; sometimes we can agree to differ about the way a decision could have gone.

Sometimes a priest, deacon, or lay leader will have been having a bad day and will be only too happy to apologise as soon as attention is drawn to the hurt which has been caused. When her horse had a bad day, Mhairi Spence could only regret its behaviour. But when we have a disagreement, we have the power not only to regret, but also to reconcile. It is part of the commitment we renew today, to believe that within this community, we can reconcile with one another. A parish where people walk away is no advert for the Gospel. A parish where people love each other enough to work through their problems is a sign of hope for the world.

Mhairi Spence did run away, to the ends of the earth – but it was there that she realised that she’d made the wrong decision. Running away would neither make her happy, nor quench the desire for Olympic gold which still blazed in her heart. So she came back. Running away is never the answer – in life, in sport, or in God’s church. But Jesus came to remind us that when we run, the Good Shepherd runs after us, and the Forgiving Father opens wide his arms awaiting our return. Whenever this happens in the life of a church, the dying and rising of Christ is lived out all over again.

Jesus Christ, whose death on Friday brought fear and despair to us all, is risen and lives beyond the reach of death for ever. He invites us to become not a parish of brokenness, but a community of reconciliation.

Just last week, Mhairi Spence was competing in the Pentathlon World Cup in Rio de Janiero. She’s not yet back in the medals, but she is in the competition.

In a few moments, we’ll renew the vows of our baptism, promising to live as members of the Catholic Church – committing ourselves to this parish and to making it work in the best way possible. This is also a competition – it is one we have to re-enter each Easter, and the Lord has rich prizes for all who run the race to its conclusion. Are you in?