A Whole Glass of Love

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Some say the glass is half empty.

Some say the glass is half full.

Me? I say the glass is twice as big as it needs to be!

We’ve just passed the half-way mark of Lent. It’s a good time to review our hopes for this Lent, the personal challenges we set out for ourselves. Were they bigger than they needed to be? If you’ve achieved something positive, but not as much as you hoped – I say well done, for taking a step in the right direction. And even if you feel like a failure, remember that it’s better to fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed, than to succeed in a cause that will ultimately fail.

Our first reading points us to a time of failure; the people of Israel, up to and including the Temple Priests, had failed to follow God’s Holy law – and not in a minor way. They’d embraced pagan religions, allowed the poorest members of society to be mistreated, and ignored the prophets sent to correct them. When the Israelites were deported to Babylon – present day Iraq – the Bible sees this as a punishment from God. Yet God is merciful, and merely 70 years later their descendants were allowed to return to the Promised Land.

The current lockdown has dragged on for months since Christmas, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel – and no, it’s not a train coming the other way. We may be unhappy with the state of the world; we might even wonder if what’s happening now is some kind of divine punishment. But we don’t need new prophets to tell us that God’s laws still stand: God expects us to care for the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society, at home and abroad. If we see the state of the world as a punishment from God, it might be that we’re expecting a bigger glass than the one God has provided. Jesus did not come to promise us that we would be safe in this life. He only promises us that we are loved.

God’s love sometimes comes in unexpected forms. In the days of Moses, the people grumbled that their journey to the Promised Land was taking too long. The Bible tells us that God permitted fiery serpents to come among the people and smite them with poisonous venom, as a punishment. But God also instructed Moses to create a bronze serpent held high on a pole, so that those who looked upon it would be healed. I wonder which surprises us more – that God would allow a punishment to be inflicted in this way, or that God would use an image of something apparently evil as a tool of healing?

For St John the Beloved Disciple, that ancient bronze serpent was a prophecy of Christ. Another symbol of evil – the crucifix – would become a sign of healing. We lift up the Cross – we place it on our walls – we exalt the Crucified one – as an act of love.

We should remember that in the ancient Roman Empire, a crucifix had the same significance as a noose, a guillotine, an electric chair or a gurney prepared for lethal injection. It was a sign that a person of the deepest wickedness was being punished for their crimes.

An ancient Roman transported to the 21st Century would gaze at any cross around your neck with the same incredulity we would give to someone sporting a miniature gallows as fashion jewellery. Yet that same cross is a place of incredible love. Jesus embraced the Cross because of love. Mary stood steadfast at the foot of the Cross, because of love. St John the Beloved kept vigil with Mother and Son because of love. Yet of these, the greatest love is that shown by Jesus – causing so much pain to his Beloved Mother and Beloved Disciples by offering his life as a ransom for all the wretches in the history of humankind.

God’s offer is simple. Put your faith in the man upon the Cross. Do this, and you shall live for ever. Perhaps that sounds too simplistic, in the same class as believing that looking at a bronze pole could cure your snakebite. But God’s ways are not our ways. In fact, they are so different from our own ways that God needs to grab our attention. Look at the man upon the cross! Look at the humility of God! Look at what he was willing to do, knowing that it opens the door for you to be forgiven all your sins, cleansed of all your curses, and admitted to unending happiness in heaven. Jesus did this, and he did it for you!

Some decades ago, a Christian poet, one John Williams, was travelling on a train when he noticed one passenger suffering a fit – and another one tending to him. The patient was a wounded soldier from the British Army. The carer was also a soldier, an American who had dedicated his life to caring for the wounded Englishman who had saved his life; indeed, the fitting was due to the wound received in that moment. The American explained to poet Williams how he had abandoned his plans for marriage and life in the United States to remain in Britain for his comrade in arms: “He did that for me! There’s nothing I can’t do for him.”

Today being Mother’s Day, I would be at fault if I didn’t invite you to pause and ponder the honour due to your mother. She endured the pains of labour for you, and most likely changed your soiled underwear, kissed your wounded knee, and soothed your aching spirit on many occasions. If she has passed into God’s hands, offer a prayer for her. If she’s still with us, what can you do today to show your love and your gratitude?

But once your mother has been honoured, remember also the one who loved you so much he gave up his life for you. He doesn’t ask the impossible from you. Nor does he worry about receiving a half-empty glass. He only asks for your all – 100% of what you can give him, and not one drop more. We don’t earn our way into heaven by our good works, but we do demonstrate our love for Christ by loving others in our turn. And it’s fitting on this Mother’s Day that I give the last word to my own Mum, whose words of wisdom to me on many occasions were these: “Gareth, always do your best, for you can’t do better than that.”

Thanks Mum. I’ll drink to that – a whole glass!


Acknowledgments – quotes in today’s homily were drawn from three episodes of Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, by Ann Atkins (22 Sep 2020) , Giles Fraser (30 Sep 2020) and Bill Arlow (10 Nov 2020).

Letter to MP regarding Foetal Cell Lines in Vaccine Production and Testing

The Vatican has advised Catholics that they may use any covid-19 vaccine produced or tested using cell lines which originate in historic abortions, as long as they have a serious reason for doing so. Given the lethal potential of this virus, the impact on one’s dependents and the capacity of the health service, as well as the growing evidence that vaccines reduce a person’s ability to spread covid-19, such a serious reason exists in this case. But Catholics are also asked to put “pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available”. I recently sent this letter to my MP and am happy to make the text available for others to use freely.

Dear (MP Name), I am a constituent resident at (give your address, as the MP must known you are a constituent to deal with your message.)


The rush to produce and deploy vaccines on a global scale has brought a new focus on the ways in which vaccines are manufactured and tested using products derived from aborted human foetuses. This applies not only to covid-19 vaccines but other vaccines which have been in routine use for children and adults, for many years. 

I am sure you will recognise that this is distasteful to many, and a moral red line for some, even though it has been a scientific ‘necessity’ to achieve the ends of life-saving vaccinations for much of the last 50 years. Should the Government move to introduce any kind of vaccine ‘passport’ scheme, this will place conscientious objectors to such vaccines in a very difficult position.

Let me make my own stance clear: when I am called to receive a vaccine, I will accept it as the socially responsible thing to do, but with a heavy heart; I will seek to receive an mRNA vaccine (not developed, only tested, in embryo cell lines) rather than the other options if I have any freedom to do so; and I am raising my voice in protest at the limited options available by the act of writing this letter.

Due to my own religious and moral views, I would very much prefer that abortion were outlawed; but I recognise that this is not an achievable goal in the UK in the foreseeable future. Based on scientific evidence, I recognise that there are strong advantages to the pharmaceutical industry in comparing new products against well-established standards derived from embryo cell lines; moving away from these standards is not technically impossible but requires the force of funding and legislation to overcome inertia.

As my Parliamentary representative, I would therefore ask you to work towards two goals, which would at least move towards minimising the issues for conscientious objectors and maximising the uptake of future vaccines. These goals are:

 (1) Requiring prioritised Government funding to develop ethical cell lines which can be used for developing and testing vaccine products;

 (2)  As soon as these ethical cell lines are sufficiently developed, requiring by legislation that these cells, rather than embryo-derived cells, be used for quality control checks on any vaccine made available in the UK.

I attach a short paper setting out the rationale for each of these steps.

As your constituent, I assure you of my prayers for your work and well-being in these strange times.

Yours Sincerely,

YOUR NAME


Cell lines are used to develop and test vaccines because they are human cells detached from a living human body which can be grown at scale in a laboratory. Some vaccines rely on modifying a mild virus to resemble part of the dangerous virus; these mild viruses must be grown in human, not animal, cells for maximum effectiveness. Other vaccines – the innovative mRNA vaccines – can be synthesised chemically, but still need to be tested for safety and quality by their effect on human cells.

Some of the available cell-lines are ‘immortalized’ – they have been manipulated so that they will keep reproducing indefinitely (the successful strains represent ‘happy accidents’ since our ability to manipulate is currently based on limited knowledge). These strains include[1] the HEK293 cells used to test vaccines and to grow the anticovid AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine – and the PER.C6 strain for the Johnson & Johnson one shot vaccine recently authorised in the USA. Insofar as the abortions which gave rise to these cell lines are irreversible historic events, these cells can be used without ‘encouraging’ future abortions.

Vaccines for other serious diseases are gown in cell lines which are not immortalised. The British MRC-5 line, the American WI-38 line and Chinese Walvax-2 line are regularly used, but these cells, like all non-cancerous cells in the human body, can only reproduce themselves a limited number of times. In the UK,[2] the MRC-5 and WI-38 lines are used to produce the rubella component of the MMR vaccine, and vaccines against chickenpox and shingles. These cell lines will eventually lose their capacity to reproduce, and will need to be replaced – but by what? By procuring cells from a fresh abortion?

We now have the ability to take cells from consenting adult donors and regress them to a near-embryonic stage – such cells are known as induced pluripotent stem cells. These are less ideal candidates for growing vaccines because (at our current ability to manipulate them) they will not retain their pluripotent status forever; they also impede scientists’ ability to match ‘like with like’ in reviewing historical data against current research. Nevertheless, if there were sufficient reason to do so (positive funding, and legislation restricting the use of embryonic cell lines), ways could be found to use these totally ethical cell lines to produce and test vaccines at scale.

The UK Parliament has always recognised that there is a grave issue of conscience around abortion. Free votes are permitted to MPs; there is a (limited) right of conscientious objection by medical practitioners who do not wish to perform terminations. We should therefore recognise that similar grave issues of conscience apply to those who wish to take a vaccine for the common good but do not wish to be tainted in any way by co-operating with a historic abortion, still less consuming a limited resource which may one day require replenishment by a future abortion. This should be sufficient reason to implement goal 1 now (fund research to enable ethical adult-derived cells to become useful for growing and testing vaccines) and goal 2 as soon as technically feasible (where the Government requires quality control testing, this must be done using ethical cells).


[1] https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/06/abortion-opponents-protest-covid-19-vaccines-use-fetal-cells 

[2] https://vk.ovg.ox.ac.uk/vk/vaccine-ingredients#human-cell-strains and https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/use-of-human-and-animal-products-in-vaccines/guide-to-the-use-of-human-and-animal-products-in-vaccines 

A Greater Time

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Third Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Time is greater than space.

That’s one of Pope Francis’ favourite expressions, and it’s worth thinking about.

We’ve just heard how Jesus cleared out the traders from the Temple. What was happening there was wrong on so many levels. At the simplest, the Temple was meant to be a holy space – trading wasn’t appropriate there. But at a deeper level, the whole moneychanging business was corrupt. Middlemen profited from poor people who wanted to buy clean animals for their sacrifices. The very poorest couldn’t afford to do so at all!

If you know a holy place which has become cluttered with things that shouldn’t be there, maybe this is the week to do something about it. But… time is greater than space. So on this day of Lent, we can also ask, is my time filled with things that shouldn’t be there?

“On the seventh day, God rested.” Among the Ten Commandments, we find one which is about stopping to rest. Observant Jews keep a sabbath day from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. By God’s law, they avoid labour. By ancient custom, they make it a family day, beginning on Friday evening with the sabbath meal marked by special blessings.

You won’t find a law in the New Testament about Sunday being a day of rest. Jesus rose from the dead early on Sunday morning. The first Christians met to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the evening each Sunday, which was a working day in the Roman Empire. Later, when Christianity was no longer an underground religion, Sunday became a public day of rest.

So what’s at the heart of the idea of a sabbath? Is it a day for rest, a day for worship or a day for families to be together? The Christian Sunday is for all of these things.

St John Paul II wrote a whole reflective letter on what Sunday means. He challenged all followers of the Lord to make this a day for spending time together in a leisurely way. Now this can take a bit of planning, but families who keep Sunday well develop traditions: maybe the whole family bakes together. Maybe Sunday’s food is prepared on Saturday. Or if you’re living alone, it might be a day when you plan to make a longer phone call to someone.

It’s a day when you could plan to do more – and to do less.

Do more – that is, do something to mark it out as a special day. You could wear different clothes – I don’t mean “going to church” clothes but “this is a special day” clothes. You could put a different cloth on the dinner table, or decorate it with flowers.

Do less – if there’s a way to avoid chores on a Sunday, avoid them. Or if there’s cooking, cleaning or gardening which has to be done, can you make a fun family activity out of it? And maybe turn off your mobile devices for a few hours, so they don’t get in the way of family time!

But do something. The Lord’s Day exists in time, rather than space. It’s what you do, more than where you do it, which makes this day different. Time is greater than space!

Making Sunday special is possible.

I have a friend in Bristol who makes it clear to her employers that she won’t work on Sundays. She’s willing to be flexible with shifts on other days, but she won’t take overtime on a Sunday. It’s her day for rest and for God.

I have a friend in Newport who runs an award-winning restaurant – which doesn’t open on Sundays. It shares its front access with a busy supermarket which does open on Sunday; but if you want a meal at the famous Gemelli’s on Sunday, I’m sorry, that’s not going to happen. To the world, this is foolishness; in God’s eyes, this is a very wise position.

I know a couple in Wales who mastered the art of using Zoom to connect with distant family members long before lockdown made us all experts in videoconferencing. By putting a table against a big screen and a video camera, they can share a Sunday meal with their grandchildren in Australia!

St John Paul also asks us what time we give to prayer and to studying our faith on a typical Sunday – either alone, or again, with family. Is it a day to read from a book of saints or a Bible story to young family members? Is it a day to connect with godchildren?

It doesn’t take long to form a habit. For the last two month, schools have been closed and we’ve got into the habit of looking after children at home. Now schools are about to re-open, and the rhythm of the week will change again – even if you don’t have kids at home, you may notice a change in the traffic and the way the world moves around you.

Lent is a time for new beginnings. Is it time to make a good habit for Sundays? It’s better to do something small but meaningful, than to shoot for the moon. Maybe start with half a Sunday – if you’re morning people, no chores after 11 am – or if you work best in the evening, none before 4 pm. If you live with others, have a household discussion… and even if not all of the people at home are people who pray, you don’t have to be religious to do family time well. Just make sure there’s enough time for the people who do want to pray, to pray.

Jesus knows the heart of every person. He knows that part of your heart which yearns for sabbath rest, and that part which is caught up in wanting to get stuff done. This is the season of purification: don’t struggle on your own, but ask him to cleanse the temple which is your very self. This may take time, but relax: time is greater than space, and the Lord of all ages will revive your soul and gladden your heart. And in the words of Pope Francis: “Have a good Sunday and a good lunch!”

Acknowledgements to Sarah Damm’s website for inspiration.

Covid Conversations

As a priest with a science background, several people have asked me about covid-19 and vaccinations. I stress that as an astrophysicist, I am not a specialist in viruses and vaccines – but as someone with wide experience in general science communication, I have a good working knowledge of genetics and cell biology, professional training in experimental statistics, and the experience to read scientific papers outside my field and recognise legitimate claims. A lot of the ‘concerned scientists’ who are championed by antivaxers have no more subject-specific expertese than I… so with these caveats in mind, let’s look at the issues.

Is Covid-19 really a serious threat?

Perhaps you are sympathetic to conspiracy theories that covid-19 doesn’t exist at all. If that’s your starting point, I’m not sure where we can find common ground; you will find a weak reason to discredit any piece of evidence I try to bring to the table and decide it must be a strong reason, because otherwise you’d be wrong and I would be right. As a professional scientist, I am confident that if there were a global conspiracy to pretend a virus exists, there would be whistleblowers a-plenty. Science can only work by publishing evidence and cross-checking results. Science is also international, and planet Earth doesn’t have a good track record of its nations working together for a common cause – so it’s unlikely that Asian and American and European and African and Australasian scientists could all be bribed or threatened into presenting a false united front. So I’m going to start by saying that covid-19 exists – but what is it?

A virus is a piece of genetic code in a chemical capsule which protects the genes long enough to travel from one person to another, and then infiltrate the cells in the next person’s body. The genetic code instructs those cells in the new victim’s body to make fresh copies of the genetic code and package it in similar capsules. A coronavirus is a kind of virus where the ‘capsule’ is shaped like a ball covered with spikes; and these spikes help the virus infiltrate the cells in our body – specifically, our lungs when we breathe it in.

A virus which can get itself copied and spread, and not kill its host before it does so, will thrive. The victim’s immune system will attack the virus to repel the invasion – and it’s our own immune response that causes ‘flu-like symptoms’ when we receive either a virus, or a vaccine which trains our immune system to recognise part of the virus.

When viruses get duplicated, sometimes copying errors are made in the genetic code. And, more rarely but often enough, two viruses get into the same cell at the same time, and their code can be stitched together to make a new pattern. Most of these changes (mutations) make the viruses less successful, or even incapable of spreading successfully – but occassionally the random mutation happens to be one which is more spreadable – and therefore, the new pattern spreads! This is why we are now talking about ‘new variants’ of covid-19. When the variation affects the shape of the capsule or the spikes on it, it makes it less likely that your body’s immune system, trained to recognise the original shape (by illness or a vaccine) will recognise this new shape as a known invader for rapid disposal.

There are a wide range of possible outcomes if you catch covid-19. You might not develop symptoms at all, but still have enough infection that you are breathing out thousands of virus particles with every breath. You might have a mild flu-like episode. You might have serious breathing difficulties and need to be on an oxygen supply or a more invasive ventilator (tube placed down your airway). When you recover (whether or not you had severe breathing difficulties), you might suffer long-term lethargy (‘long covid’). Or you might not recover – you could die.

One person from my wider circle of friends died last summer. Two of my friends – a hospital doctor and a priest – are suffering long-term consequences of covid. Another doctor-friend was off work for more than a month before recovering eventually. I also know a number of families who suffered only very mild bouts. As far as I know, I haven’t caught covid yet.

It’s been said that human life itself is a sexually-transmitted terminal condition – we’re all born, and we’re all going to die of something (unless we live to see the Second Coming of Christ!) In Western democracies, part of the social contract is that the state will make reasonable efforts to stop you dying of avoidable causes – an ambulance will come, and a skilled team of doctors will do their best to help you recover from the brink of death when you suffer an accident, illness or other medical incident (and in some countries, give you a handsome bill for their trouble when they discharge you). But the resources available are not infinite – money is not poured into researching very rare diseases which won’t recoup costs for drug companies, and hospitals will politely suggest that an expensive life-support machine be switched off when there’s no medical reason to expect that a patient will recover, once brain-stem death has been diagnosed.

In Britain, our current social policies are built around not stretching our National Health Service beyond capacity. We don’t want to be in a position where we say ‘This covid patient wasn’t given a fighting chance to pull through because no ventilator was available.’ (Note that to be ‘available’ there needs to be trained ventilator staff as well as a physical machine!) Already, the need to respond to covid emergencies and disinfect ambulances has led to increased response times with likely fatal consequences. Measuring the impact of covid is tricky. How do we take account of people with other medical conditions whose treatment is stopped or delayed becuse the NHS is focussing on covid? How many people who die within 28 days of getting a positive covid test (an easy statistic to measure) actually died ‘because’ of covid? If you catch covid and have another health condition too, which of them is responsible for your demise? Scientists are not blind to these problems, and so the preferred way to measure the impact of covid is to look at the age profile of people who died in 2020 (the study linked goes up to 20 Nov 2020), and compare it to what the age profile would have been expected to be based on data from previous years. This method shows that in England and Wales, because of covid and despite the restrictions of the spring and autumn lockdowns and other measures, 53,937 people died who would otherwise have been alive by 20 Nov.

Now, how many of those 53,937 people would have died soon after 20 Nov 2020 anyway – and how many would have gone on enjoy many more years of life? It’s impossible to predict what would have happened to individuals, but a careful study from Glasgow suggests that a healthy 80 year-old who dies from covid would, on average, otherwise have lived to be 90. A person in their 50s who dies from covid is most likely to lose about 30 years of life. It’s sad but unsurprising to see high death tolls in nursing homes, where residents are near the end of their lives anyway; those who would have died soon from other causes are most vulnerable to covid. But when those lives are of soneone’s cherished grandparents, it would be a brave or foolish person who claimed that these deaths don’t matter! For the population as a whole, covid-19 shortens the life of a woman by 0.9 years and the life of a man by 1.2 years – but these averages are summing up what happens to the many who don’t catch covid and the portion who do, plus taking into account the impact on society of all the consequences of coronavirus.

What about me? I’m a 47 year old, obese, white male. The qcovid calculator (which matches my chances to what happened to people in the first UK lockdown profiled by age, weight, race and other factors) suggests that in the next 90 days, I have a 1 in 1309 chance of being admitted to hospital due to covid-19 and a 1 in 17857 chance of dying because of covid-19. Now this probability conflates the chance that I catch the disease and the chance of getting serious consequences if I do. My chance of catching it in the first place is lower than someone who has to work in a healthcare environment or public place. What about my parents? Men are more vulnerable than women, and my Dad has a roughly 1 in 400 chance of dying due to covid in the next 90 days… but what happens when 90 days become 900? This brings the odds to 1 in 40. Without vaccinations, even if we stay in lockdown, 39 people with Dads like mine won’t lose their Dad to covid before the end of 2023. One will.

Vaccine Questions

The human body has a wonderful and adaptable immune system. White blood cells are constantly vigilant for biological material which doesn’t seem to be part of your own body, and after successfully repelling an invader, they retain a ‘memory’ causing them to respond more quickly to future invasions by the same enemy. Traditional vaccines train the body to recognise an invader by providing a ‘training dose’ which might be only part of the full invading organism, or a weakened version of the whole virus.

Some of these vaccines use a new technology – they are mRNA vaccines. RNA is a chemical similar to DNA which carries genetic code – but while DNA is normally found in matching pairs of strands locked away in a cell’s nucleus, RNA is usually found as a single strand floating in the cell’s body. The ‘m’ stands for ‘messenger’ because RNA’s usual role is to instruct mechanisms in the cell to create new structures (proteins) or to duplicate genetic code. An mRNA vaccine instructs your own cells to make a charcteristic part of the invader you want to repel – in this case, your own body cells produce the same ‘spike’ protein that covid uses to infect your lungs. You can think of the cell nucleus as a ‘reference library’ which contains recipe books which can’t be removed (the DNA); when your cell needs to do something, it consults the recipe book, makes a ‘photocopy’ of the instructions using RNA, and then destroys the copy when no longer needed. The mRNA vaccine is slipping its own recipe into the pile of recipes which are routinely received from the cell nucleus and then destroyed.

Actually this new technology isn’t so new – it’s been trialled in animals since 1990. But a paper published in Nature in 2018 notes that it was only in the 2010s that we learned how to deliver mRNA into cells at the scale needed to work effectively as a vaccine. The problem is, there are several clean-up chemicals in our cells which make sure old mRNA isn’t left hanging around. The half-life (time for 50% to decay) of mRNA in the human body is about 7 hours. Now the special mRNA designed for the covid vaccine is a self-amplifying mRNA which means it includes a code telling cells to replicate it … so there’s a race between how quickly the cell can multiply it and how long it takes the cell’s natural clean-up mechanisms to degrade the mRNA until it doesn’t work any more. Making a strand of mRNA long enough to carry both the self-replicating instructions and the vaccine component means it’s quite a large and vulnerable molecule. Eventually the body’s clean-up mechanism will win, but I can’t tell you exactly how long that takes, because the vaccine company doesn’t seem to have published that data. The bottom line is that mRNA is a fairly new technology but it’s not one never tried before in humans – on the contrary, clinical trials of mRNA vaccines have taken place in humans, such as this 2018 flu vaccine trial.

Is there any danger that the genetic codes in these mRNA vaccines will somehow get embedded into our own genetic code? The short answer is ‘No’. The more accurate answer is ‘not enough to worry about’. The mRNA is only accessing our cell bodies, not penetrating the nucleus where our cells store their own DNA. And yet scientists almost never say ‘never’. Viruses do the same thing as mRNA vaccines – put their own genetic code into our cells to hijack them. And very rarely – so rarely that we have to look for evidence over thousands of years – a virus can get itself permanently written into our human DNA (see here and here). The chances of this happening from the covid vaccine are no greater than the chances of it happening from a covid infection. If the RNA code did somehow get written into our own DNA, first it would only affect the cell where it happened (though if that happened to be an egg or sperm cell that got fertilised, it would be in every cell in the new child’s body). Next, it would probably corrupt the DNA and make it unreadable. If it somehow got spliced into a sensible place, it would only have an effect when the genetic code in that part of the cell was activated. (Every cell in your body contains instructions on how to be muscle, skin, liver and brain. Since most cells spend their time not being all but one of the things they could be, a lot of code in them goes unprocessed.) As far as I can see there is no special risk of taking an experimental mRNA vaccine – certainly no greater than the risk that catching a cold could somehow rewrite your DNA!

There is, of course, one important ethical difference. If you catch a virus, despite your best efforts to practice good hygiene, you are not morally responsible for the consequences which you suffer. If a pharmaceutical company, physician and patient agree that the patient should receive an mRNA vaccine, then they all share moral responsibility for injecting that genetic code into the consenting individual. The odds of a runaway gene getting into the human genome through you are tiny – but not zero. Yet we accept much greater odds every time we get behind the wheel of a car – we are entering into a pact with other drivers, pedestrians, and parents of wayward children, that together we will not create a scenario where my driving has tragic consequences. Alas, we cannot always anticpate the unexpected, and if a large part falls off a car in front of me or a small child breaks away from her reins and dashes into the road, I may find myself unwillingly responsible for a crash or worse. Do we base our decision on which risks we will take on the size of the risk (which is logical) or the ‘smell’ of the risk, which feels worse when we have no experience to draw on?

Covid vaccines have now been developed by a number of different countries. They have been fast-tracked for approval, and there are some inevitable consequences. Can we tell you, based on evidence, what cumulative effects these vaccines will have after 5 years? No, because we haven’t had 5 years to run tests. Can we tell you what side-effects will appear at the one-in-a-million level? Not yet, though that data will be gathered as millions are vaccinated and marginal adverse effects are noticed. Have some things been done in parallel because of the the urgency which would otherwise have been done step-by-step? Yes. Is there an ethical requirement to give an effective vaccine to the “control” group of unvaccinated volunteers? Yes, when the evidence for safety and effectiveness passes certain thresholds. There will still be “natural control” groups of people unvaccinated for various reasons. Have the regulators “cut corners”? Not in the essential steps of what they have to test.

Is the risk of taking a vaccine greater than the risk from catching covid? Unless there are known reasons why a vaccine may be dangerous to an individual (e.g. a history of anaphylactic shock) the answer is no. The Oxford AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTec vaccines report that serious side effects occur in 1 in 100,000 cases. Moderna reports 1 in 1,000,000 but acknowledges the posibility of the vaccine causing temporary facial paralysis, more serious than the side effects reported for the other vaccines.

Let’s consider what would happen if I did or didn’t take the vaccine during the current lockdown conditions (obviously my risk of catching covid goes up when there’s no lockdown). The qcovid tool was calibrated during the first lockdown so is broadly applicable in the current lockdown. Let’s ask what would happen if I did or didn’t take a 95% effective vaccine. Or rather, let’s ask would would happen in roughly the next year (4 x 90 days) if a million people like me did or didn’t…

  • If a million people like me choose not to take the vaccine: 3,040 will need to go to hospital. 240 will die.
  • If a million people like me DO take a 95% effective vaccine: 152 will be in hospital because of covid. 10 might suffer serious side effects to the vaccine. 12 will die. (And that’s if lockdown measures stay as tight as they are. Looser measures will mean more hospitalisations and more deaths… on the other hand, if the vaccines turn out to make people significantly less able to spread the virus then the nunber of severe reactions and deaths will go down.)

So thanks to a vaccine, among the million people like me, 228 people will be saved from death; another 2,888 won’t need a hospital bed, but 10 will have a nasty experience of side effects.

Should we vaccinate children against covid? That’s an interesting question, and there’s a parallel with chickenpox. In the USA, all children are routinely vaccinated against varicella (the virus which cauhses chickenpox and shingles). In the UK, it’s NHS policy that only clinically vulnerable children, and elderly people, receive this vaccine. Chickenpox tends to be a mild disease in children, and provides a ‘natural booster’ for their parents. The parents’ immune systems get a reminder of what chickenpox looks like through contact with these children. This reminder helps to suppress dormant varicella which could otherwise emerge as shingles.

Based on US statistics for the first year of covid circulating, 12,329 children have been hospitalised with covid and 297 have died. Divergence in reporting between different States make this a little inaccurate, but as a ballpark figure, with 74 million children living in the USA, this means that in each million children, in the course of a year with partial lockdowns, 166 will go to hospital and perhaps 4 will die. Those 4 children probably represent children with underlying conditions who could have been singled out for vaccination (a similar study in the UK showed only 4 children died due to covid in the first peak and all had underlying conditions). So in a future where adults are vaccinated, and children are pretty safe from dying with covid, should children not be vaccinated in order to keep covid circulating at a level where the older vaccinated population gets a natural ‘boost’? There are too many uncertainties at present about the effects of vaccines on whether people can carry and transmit covid before their immune system clears it out, but at some stage we may face the question: if the whole of the older population is vaccinated, at what age should we start vaccinating? This will be about balancing the natural resilience of children and the need to keep the vaccinated population naturally boosted – if it turns out covid works the same way as chickenpox.

Finally, some ask whether it’s possible that taking a vaccine could actually make you have a worse reaction if you do catch covid. This is a genuine risk with some vaccines – it’s known as enhancement. This scientific paper from 2016 notes:

One concern of vaccination in humans is vaccine-mediated enhancement of disease, a process in which the disease following infection is more severe in vaccinated individuals than in unvaccinated individuals. Although this was observed in only a small subset of vaccine studies that were carried out for SARS-CoV and has not yet been observed in any of the published MERS-CoV vaccine studies, it is an important concern.

This in turn cites a paper which reviews the ‘small subset’; that report notes there is a indeed a significant history of coronavirus vaccines causing strong reactions… for vaccines developed for certain viruses which infect cats. So far as research has been carried out into coronaviruses which affect human respiration, “In the vast majority of studies, immunogenicity has been elicited without any negative impact on health after challenge with the virulent pathogen.” Or in plain English, the risk of a covid-19 vaccine provoking a strong reaction when the vaccinated person catches covid is tiny, but not zero. Remember that before vaccines are licensed for use, clinical trials have to prove that the vaccine is effective in ensuring that most people who would otherwise have had a serious reaction will instead experience mild or immeasurable symptoms; if signifcant numbers of people were going to have a severe reaction, it would have been noticed at that stage.

Embryonic Cell Lines

A particularly troubling matter for Catholics, and indeed all who respect the sanctity of human life, is the use of ‘cell lines’ derived from aborted foetuses in antiviral research. The most prominent cell line is HEK293, though other cell lines do exist. It’s worth telling the story of HEK293 to give it a context.

Frank Graham was studying cancer in 1973. Cancer is the general name given to any condition when cells in a creature (human or otherwise) stop doing what they are ‘supposed’ to do and start reproducing wildly. Several things can trigger cancer, including radiation, pollution and genetic defects. But certain kinds of virus can also trigger cancer, and Frank was studying a kind called adenovirus. He was working in the Netherlands, where elective abortion had become less restricted since 1966, and he chose to harvest cells from the kidneys of freshly aborted foetuses. His 293rd experiment – he started by treating 40 batches of cells at a time – succeeded in producing a line of cancer cells that could reproduce themselves indefinitely, leading to the serial number HEK 293 – Human Embryonic Kidney cell test 293. It turned out that part of the adenovirus had incorporated itself into the nucleus of the original HEK 293 cell, and also triggered duplications of existing chromosome material. (So this is a rare example of the DNA in a cell actually being modified – but of course this cell was only found because researchers were actively looking for it. If this had happened in a living human body, the cell would have become a tumour, the human would have died, and there would have been no long term consequences for the human race.)

Because HEK293 cells have a modified genetic code, they are not-very-useful for studying how normal human cells behave, but very useful for vaccine research. Adenoviruses tend to produce only mild illnesses in humans, so they are often tweaked to ‘look like’ more dangerous viruses and used as the basis of vaccines that way. But there’s always a risk that tweaking viruses can create some new strain that ‘goes wild’ so the research companies use a ‘safe’ version of adenovirus. Remember, there’s a little bit of the genetic code for adenovirus in every HEK293 cell. They realised that if they knock out that same part of the genetic code from their test virus and then grow it in a HEK293 cell, it would work because the missing instructions are already ‘in there’. But the tweaked adenovirus can’t grow in normal human cells so if it breaks free it can’t go anywhere!

There is no reason to believe that any abortions were coerced specifically to provide Frank Graham with research material; there were enough freely chosen abortions taking place. Graham himself is on record as saying he assumed it was an abortion performed to save a mother’s life because that was the only kind allowed in 1973, but in fact Dutch physicians had been allowed to interpret the existing law to permit abortion on much wider “mother’s wellbeing” grounds since 1967. The serial number 293 doesn’t indicate the number of abortions, but the number of dishes of cells trialled by the time of that experiment; even so, it is likely that material from several foetuses would have been needed to provide so many starting cultures. It has been suggested that the extraction of kidney material would have been carried out on a still-living foetus, causing it great pain; I have been unable to find documentation of Graham’s specific method. It is noteworthy that in 1972, the Peel report of the UK Parliament ruled that foetuses up to 20 weeks’ gestation were non-viable and therefore could be experimented on outside the womb; by 2019, there were conflicting theories on whether foetuses would begin to feel pain around 12, 20 or 24 weeks’ gestation.

Another commonly used human cell line, WI 38, comes from the 38th aborted foetus at the Wistar Institute. These cells have not become cancerous, and are therefore expected to lose their ability to reproduce after going through about 50 cycles of growth, but have become the common growth medium for rubella vaccine. An added controversy is that the mother of the 38th aborted foetus did not give her consent for the cells to be taken. More recently, a team of Chinese scientists created a new cell line (Walvax-2), and in 2015 openly documented the process. Nine candidate foetuses were identified, and aborted using the ‘water bag’ method, allowing their lung cells to be harvested. It is not made clear whether the ‘water bag’ meant the foetus was still alive at the point of harvesting.

When a vaccine is grown in one of these cell cultures, and then administered to a human patient, is it correct to say that ‘aborted tissue’ or ‘DNA from an aborted foetus’ or indeed ‘cancerous tissue’ (in the case of HEK293) is being injected? The process of cell division means that material from the original HEK293 cell has been shared out among the millions of cells produced by its immortal reproduction. The original DNA has been duplicated and reduplicated, but is still a near-perfect copy of what was in the aborted child.

There are roughly 1014 atoms in a human cell. 247 is a number of similar magnitude, indicating that by the time 47 divisions of the HEK293 cells have taken place, there will be, on average, one atom left from the original foetal cell in each daughter cell. There may be a profound ‘yuk factor’ in the notion that actual matter, even an atom, from the original foetus could still be present; but the moral significance remains even if the DNA is merely a copy. It is the heritage of today’s HEK293 cells, and the intentions behind their use (not where the actual molecules in them originate), which gives this material moral gravity.

Human cell lines currently used in the USA are noted by the reputable journal, Science with regard to covid-19 vaccines and vaccines against other viruses; the newly-approved one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses the PER.C6 cell line developed from retinal cells of an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985. Like HEK293, these cells have been immortalised so that they can be used indefinitely, without needing a fresh fetal source.

The UK Government acknowledges that vaccines in use in Britain make use of:

… human cell line … MRC5; these cells derive from the lung of a 14-week-old male fetus from a pregnancy that was terminated for medical reasons in 1966. This cell line is used to grow viruses for vaccines against rubella, chickenpox and hepatitis A. Other fetal cell lines, collected in the 1970s and 1980s, have been used for other vaccines, including influenza and some of the new COVID-19 vaccines. No fetal material is present in the final vaccine.

There is also the related question of whether aborted or cancerous DNA can have an adverse influence on those vaccinated. When HEK293 or other cell lines are used to grow ‘safe’ viruses to use as vaccines, the product is purified. It is the grown virus, not the HEK293 cells, which are being injected as the vaccine – and a process of purification takes place so that only the desired product ends up in the final vaccine. No purification process is perfect, however so it is acknowledged (and in the papers cited here) that there will be tiny fragments of DNA from the cell line cells still present. These are not complete codes, as in the case of the mRNA vaccine, so there is even less danger of them entering a genome and doing something meaningful – and as one of the pages cited points out, if it were easy for this to happen, scientists would have perfected genetic engineering a long time ago! We do now have tools which allow us to edit genomes (CRISPR-Cas9 technology) but the very fact we need a tool shows that the risk of natural editing taking place is small.

Vaccines which use a weak virus to imitate covid (or any other disease) are grown in cell line cells, so every dose of vaccine has been harvested from cells descended from the tissue of an aborted foetus. The dose no longer contains, except as trace fragments, any part of those cells. The new mRNA vaccines are not grown in this way, but may depend on knowledge from previous research using cell lines – and each batch off the production line is tested using cell-line cells. So there is a difference in degree of connection – some vaccine are grown in cell lines but others can be mass-produced by synthesizing RNA another way. Another ethical distinction can be made between vaccines reliant on HEK293 or PER.C6, which are capable of reproducing indefinitely, and those using other strains such as WI-38 and MRC-5 which will one day reach their reproduction limit; in the latter case, does use imply tacit recognition that one day a new abortion will be needed to replace the cell line?

Of course, it is possible that an ethical alternative may be found. Scientists have considered methods of taking cell samples from embryos without causing injury (though since this is of no direct benefit to the infant, there is a still a question of consent) – and in 2006 we learned how to take tissue from adult donors and regress it so it behaves like embyonic tissue (we call this induced pluripotency). You can now go to a medical supply shop and search for these iP Stem Cells! But the use of these adult-derived cells has not become standard; they have been used to research viruses including Zika and H1N1 flu, but the cell lines are unstable and tend to revert to their specialised parent cells after some generations.

The Ethics of Co-Operation

On certain matters, the Catholic Church offers a simple and clear moral teaching – some actions are wrong in all circumstances, period. One such action (technically, an “intrinsic evil”) is the destruction of an innocent human being, at any moment from conception to natural death.

On other matters, the Church does not dictate what her members can and cannot do, but sets out the values they should weigh in reaching their own conclusions. In 2003, an American pro-life activist asked the Vatican for guidance on whether she should permit her children to receive mandatory vaccinations which had been prepared using foetal cells. The reply came in 2005, and it first summarised the known vaccines at the time which used WI-38 or MRC-5 (there were no HEK293 vaccines mentioned), then set out general principles for co-operation.

  • Do you approve the immoral act?
  • Did you do something to enable it?
  • Did you fail to do something to oppose it?
  • Is your connection in space or time remote from the evil action?

The conclusion was that those who manufacture or market vaccines from embryonic cell lines are doing something ‘illicit’ but that when there was a proportionate reason to use such a vaccine to avoid grave illness, and no ethical alternative was available, a Catholic could accept such a vaccine for their children in good conscience, but under protest. A note from the Vatican in December 2020 affirmed that this conclusion also applied to covid vaccines – no-one should be obliged to receive them, but given the lethal potential of covid, non-vaccinated objectors had a grave responsibility to avoid spreading the virus, and Catholics could receive tainted vaccines in good conscience.

Some Catholics will question whether a there is a sufficiently grave reason to take the vaccine. There are four immediate reasons:

  • To protect one’s own health – but this is self-serving and could readily be sacrificed for ethical reasons.
  • To protect one’s dependents from the consequences of yourself being incapacitated or killed.
  • To reduce pressure on local intensive care services – if you avoidably take up the last ventilator bed, you may prevent another life from being saved.
  • To reduce the spread of the virus – but it’s not yet clear how effective vaccines are at doing this.

While the relationship of vaccines and virus transmission is yet to be determined, it’s clear that a person with no dependents nevertheless benefits society by taking a vaccine in order to reduce pressure on intensive care beds – beds which save lives. It seems to me that this is a sufficiently grave reason to receive a vaccine, under protest – but a Catholic with no dependents wishing to make a conscientious stand might equally decline intensive care treatment should they fall seriously ill with covid at a time of peak pressure on the local health service.

Some pro-life activists question whether it can ever be ethical to make use of a tainted vaccine. Surely, if the Vatican says that even even “passive material cooperation should generally be avoided” then there must be something wrong about such co-operation. But to undertake a wrong action is sin, and a Christian should never deliberately choose to sin. So can it ever be ethical to compromise? To this I would reply that there is a long tradition in the church which recognises that Our Lord offered ‘counsels of perfection’. Some choose to take vows of poverty, chastity and religious obedience – but the failure to do so is not a sin. So there is a grey area between ‘choosing what is most perfect’ and ‘choosing what is actually sinful’. Even Our Lord himself directed St Peter to pay tax to the Romans – allowing a coin with an idolatrous image of the emperor to be used to satisfy a public obligation. We know Our Lord did not sin, and yet he could tolerate this. So in the realms of remote co-operation, where a vaccine is needed for the common good, it is not automatically sinful for a Catholic to choose such a vaccine; but an individual Catholic whose conscience is clear that there is not a sufficient reason to accept the vaccine can, and should, refuse. Healthcare providers act disingenuously when they only point out that the Vatican has ‘permitted’ use of such vaccines; the teaching of the Church also endorses recourse to one’s conscience to weigh whether or not to actually accept the vaccine.

Crystal Clear

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Second Sunday of Lent, Year B.

God loves us.

God tests us.

These two truths are uncomfortable to hold together.

Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer. The Jerusalem Bible, which we currently use for Mass in England, translates one phrase as “Do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one.” It reminds me that Pope Francis recently commented that God cannot tempt us to sin, but he does allow us to be tested. So we pray not to be tested, but we know that sometimes God will politely decline our request. We have only a promise in Scripture that we will not be tested “more than we can bear”.

On the mountain of transfiguration, Jesus is affirmed as God’s beloved Son – but even that doesn’t spare him from testing. We know that Lent is leading us towards Maundy Thursday, when Our Lord will face the temptation to run away from his crucifxion before it begins, and the agony of the Cross, when he will be dared to come down before it is finished.

Jesus, the beloved Son, had a choice. He chose to co-operate with his Father’s plan. Yes, today’s Second Reading says that the Father sent Jesus, his beloved son, to lay down his life for us. But in John’s Gospel we also see Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his own life – indeed, the literal translation would be, “I am the beautiful shepherd.” As we see Jesus today bathed in light on top of the holy mountain, consider his beauty! Could anyone be more loving than Jesus?

It’s a bit harder to see something beautiful in today’s first reading. We have another father and son on a mountain, and this son almost lays down his life, too – but perhaps not so willingly. Abraham believes that God has asked him to slaughter his beloved son, the very boy God gave Sarah as a miracle baby. He must be hoping that this is a test, and at some point God is going to offer him a get-out, but when they reach the top of the mountain, there’s no alternative yet. It’s at this point that the horrible truth becomes clear to Isaac – because now Abraham binds his son and pulls out his knife…

I’d like to be able to give you a neat explanation which tidies up this story.

Maybe I could tell you that in the ancient cultures around Abraham, it was a normal thing for a father to sacrifice a son to establish a dynasty, and Abraham thought that this would please the Lord too. But that makes no sense of the Bible declaring that God asked for the sacrfiice, or was pleased with Abraham’s obedience.

Maybe I could tell you that Isaac was a willing victim, happy to obey this terrible command from God; but that doesn’t make sense of the full story – we’ve only been given edited highlights today, but read the whole of Genesis 22 and you will discover that Isaac asks Abraham where they will find the lamb to be sacrificed. And if Isaac was a willing victim, he wouldn’t need to be bound.

Yes, I’d like to be able to give you a neat explanation which explains this Bible passage comfortably. But in the end, I can’t. I can only give you these truths which fit so uncomfortably together.

God loves us.

God tests us.

When we’re faced with something like this, we have a word for it: “Mystery”. Not a puzzle to be solved, but a provoking story inviting us to seek God’s message. And the mystery of the binding of Isaac is mirrored in the mystery of our daily lives. For although we believe that God loves us, we may experience more often the truth that God tests us. And I recently came across a true story which mirrors this mystery.

Crystal McVea had every reason to be angry with God. I won’t share the details of the things that happened to her in her childhood, but they were horrible. She cried out to God, but no help seemed to come. She often boasted that should she ever meet God, she would ask him all the why why why questions. And she got her opportunity. She died.

Or rather, she didn’t die. But she was clinically dead for nine minutes and returned with a remarkable story of meeting God. Now no-one can prove that these ‘near death experiences’ are genuine spiritual experiences, but I think this one’s worthy of a hearing, because of its because powerful impact on her life.

Crystal was confronted with the beauty of God, and suddenly understood so many things about his plan for her life. In that light, all questions fell away from her lips except one. Why… oh why… didn’t I do more for you during my lifetime? In that moment of encounter, God showed Crystal a small girl radiant with light, literally playing in the rivers of light in heaven; and Crystal filled with love for this person before realising who it was – it was herself, as seen through God’s eyes. I won’t read out her words here and now; it’s easy to find her speaking for herself, online. But it was through seeing the glory of God, and her own radiance as a child of God, that she found peace with God despite the many, many tests she had endured in her life. Crystal returned from that experience knowing that her horrible past made sense as part of the loving plan of God; she also found strength to embrace a better present, forgiving her enemies and putting her trust in God. That’s the power of God’s beauty.

I can’t explain the mystery of how the Binding of Isaac was a necessary part of God’s plan. But I trust that it was, and one day we will understand, just as we will appreciate all the trials of our life in these times. Though God covers you with shadow, remember the light!

God loves us.

God tests us.

Jesus, I trust in you.

Beyond the Rainbow

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the First Sunday of Lent, Year B.

Where is the rainbow leading us today?

The story of Noah isn’t the most obvious one for the start of Lent. We can see some basic connections – Noah and his family passed through a trial of 40 days – in fact longer, because after the rain stopped it took time for the waters to go down – and they lived with wild animals, as Jesus did in the wilderness. Theirs was quite an extreme form of lockdown – no daily exercise and nowhere to go shopping!

St Peter made another connection. Before Noah’s family boarded the ark, the earth had been populated by wicked human beings who refused to repent of their sins. But when Jesus died on the cross, he went to the afterlife where the souls of the dead were ‘in prison’, waiting for Jesus to win forgiveness for sinners. God could have destroyed all life on earth and created entirely new lines of animals and humans. But God didn’t do that – he gave the existing lines a chance to start again, saved in the Ark and passing through water. In the same way, new Christians are able to start again by passing through baptism. God’s promise not to flood the earth again might be understood as a sign that baptism cannot be repeated; though at Easter we will remember and renew the promises made at our baptism.

The account of Noah, like many chapters in the book of Genesis, is God’s way of teaching us through a story which is easy to remember; it’s not an account of world history. Was there ever a flood which covered the entire surface of planet Earth? The evidence says No. Were there floods in ancient days which wiped out whole civilisations, so that from one tribe’s point of view, their whole world had been destroyed? Most assuredly, Yes. Was there a first rainbow in the history of the world a few thousand years ago? That is hard to believe, unless the universal properties of light or of water were miraculously changed. Rather, God’s Spirit is here inspiring a rebranding exercise, taking what already exists – the rainbow – and charging it with a new meaning.

Where is the rainbow leading us today?

We human beings are also good at re-branding the rainbow. When I was a child it was simply a sign of hope and cheerfulness. Kermit the Frog sang of the “Rainbow Connection” while Judy Garland dreamed of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Flowing from God’s promise not to destroy the human race, a rainbow flag was used as a sign of peace. Since 1978, a rainbow flag has taken on a more awkward meaning for Christians, being used as a sign of solidarity with the lesbian and gay community. The Catholic Church agrees that no-one should be discriminated against because of their sexual preferences, while maintaining that God’s plan is that the only appropriate context for sexual intimacy is within the marriage of a man and a woman. During the last 12 months, the rainbow has been rebranded again, as a sign of support for our National Health Service in this time of pandemic.

Rainbows can be a sign of false hope – as in the legend of the crock of gold to be found buried where the rainbow touches earth. Of course, you can never reach the end of the rainbow because it moves to keep its distance from you – rainbows are masters of social distancing! This reminds us that we can be tempted to put our hope in material things which can never really satisfy us.

I was struck by the final words of the first reading – God’s promise never again to “destroy all things of flesh”. There, of course, it means all living creatures – but the Bible never wastes words and I think it is meant to remind us of the other meaning of “flesh” – those bodily instincts which sometimes pull us away from God’s plan for our lives. Anger, our appetite for food and drink, and sexual attraction – all these things can lead us along courses of action which we soon regret. Lent is a time to look anew at the temptations of our flesh and to choose to do what is within our power to destroy them. That may mean joining one of the ‘Anonymous’ 12-Step groups (AA NA GA & SA) or seeking the help of a dieting app. But whatever we need to do, let’s work at it with all our willpower, but never forget, when we succeed and when we fail, to throw ourselves upon the mercy of God.

Where is the rainbow leading us today?

Let’s rediscover the rainbow as a sign of hope. A rainbow can only form when sunshine and rain are present in the same sky. Although the clouds are grey, the sunlight finds a way through and is revealed in all its glory after passing through the raindrops. Without the grey there could be no glory. But on many a grey day I’ve seen a rainbow and realised that the sun must be getting through somewhere, and you can find it if you turn and look.

At the start of Mass, we used a song called Oceans. We’ve called upon God’s spirit to lead us where our ‘trust is without borders’ – giving God permission to take us anywhere, however grey, on our journey to glory. Maybe, like St Peter trying to walk on water, our feet will fail. Maybe we haven’t started Lent so well, or faltered in our chosen discipline already.

It’s OK to start now, or to begin again.

Jesus took Peter’s hand to save him from drowning, and reached out to the souls of sinners who had died throughout human history. Do you not think he will do the same for you? If you’ve never been baptised, what’s stopping you asking for it? If you have been baptised, you can be cleansed anew through the sacrament of confession – and priests are available to do this securely, even in current circumstances.

Where is the rainbow leading us today? It offers a promise that God’s anger will pass and our sins can be forgiven. That is the true gold beyond the rainbow; so as Jesus famously said, repent, and believe the good news!

What Are You Carrying?

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

It’s not you – it’s what you’re carrying!

In Bible days, leprosy was a dreaded disease – many different skin conditions could make you a ‘leper’. People didn’t fully understand how the infection was transmitted, but they had a horror of being touched by a leper, or coming into contact with their spittle. So lepers had to cover their top lip and keep their distance from other people. Doesn’t that sound strangely familiar today?

Being a leper wasn’t any reflection on your personal holiness. Of course, some people would ask – there are always people who ask – is this illness a punishment for sin? The answer to this question is always the same, unless God has told you otherwise: “Not necessarily!” Anyone, from a king to a slave, could become a leper. So when Jesus healed a leper, he was doing more than simply restoring health to an individual – he was restoring the individual to the community!

Lepers of old carried a blemish on their body and the stigma of being outcast on their soul. For us today, the concerning covid-cough comes too late to give certainty. Is someone you know carrying the dread disease? If someone at home coughs, is it the cough or just a cough? When we pass someone in the street, or do business with the assistant in a shop, we look at one another anxiously, wondering: what are you carrying?

Now whatever you do, avoid giving offence, but do it for the glory of God.

If you give space to someone you’re passing on the pavement, how can you do so graciously? Moving to avoiding a person could be a sign of hostility in other circumstances, but right now it’s an act of love. So first of all, smile. Yes, it makes a difference – even if you’re wearing a mask! Next, perhaps there’s some gesture of friendliness you can make with your hand. And of course, you can consider saying something cheerful – but check first that the Other isn’t absorbed in a phonecall or podcast. In this strange season of avoidance we have to keep communicating the reassuring message: “It’s not you, it’s just what you might be carrying.”

So let’s pause for a moment, as we stand on the threshold of Lent, to ask: What am I carrying? Fear? Anger? Anxiety?

All of these things are normal and natural in the current season.

Just as we step politely around a passer-by, so we can acknowledge these emotions as companions on our journey, passengers which do not need to define who we are. Perfect love casts out all fear. God has promised his friends the fruits of the Holy Spirit which can burst forth at surprising times, to sustain us: joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control, and more! If we have received the sacrament of confirmation, we have every right to turn to God in a season like this and politely but firmly ask for a new release of the graces promised to us through the Seal of the Spirit which we carry.

Covid is not the only thing we can carry, unseen. We are called to be carriers of love, carriers of glory, carriers of God’s grace. This grace breaks forth in the generous way we can treat others, and in the way we deal with our own fears. Our Lord once put things in perspective by warning us not to fear what could harm our bodies, but only to fear the One who has the power to gather us into heaven or cast us out to eternal damnation. In fact, those who follow Christ need have no fear of becoming lepers in Hell, for he has gone before us to prepare a place for us, and He has promised to show us the Way.

We who remain on earth, however, are left with an uncomfortable riddle. Jesus does love us and has prepared a way for us. As a sign of his love for us, he greeted today’s leper with a resounding assurance: “Of course I want to!” – I want to cure you of your disease and restore to you the closeness of human society! Yet this Lord who wants to, doesn’t always act when we wish he would. Do not Jesus Christ and his heavenly Father have the power to rebuke a pandemic and stop it in its tracks? Undoubtedly. Do they love us, as the pinnacle of their creation? Most assuredly! So why is the world today nevertheless in the noose of this new leprosy?

On Thursday the church throughout the world celebrated the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, and perhaps it is to Lourdes we can look for the answer. Since Our Lady appeared there in 1854, the Catholic Church has recognised 67 claims of healings as truly miraculous – instantaneous, unaided by medicine, and inexplicable to science. Many thousands more dossiers document strong claims of God’s divine aid, but do not quite meet the threshold for manifesting a miracle. Yet in response to Our Lady’s invitation to let those who sick come and bathe at the shrine, many millions of pilgrims have returned home without a physical cure but with a new peace of mind. And there was no healing for St Bernadette, the young visionary of Lourdes who became a religious sister and died at the age of 35. Her short life was marked by cholera, asthma and a painful death, which she offered up as penance for sinners. The Mother of God told her: “I do not promise to make you happy in this world but in the other.” That other world can be glimpsed when Jesus heals a leper, and also when we lovingly make space for another person, but will only be experienced in its fulness when we slip the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God. Yes, Jesus Christ want to heal us, and he will, but before resurrection comes the Great Lent which began last year and which we enter anew this Wednesday.

So what are you carrying today? I am carrying the promise of a Kingdom yet to come, which breaks through in surprising ways to sustain us in the here-and-now. If you want to, you can ask Jesus for something to carry, too.

New Eyes Will Be Provided

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

There are times when a beacon of hope shines in the midst of darkness.

For the people of Capernaum in the New Testament, that beacon shone out when Jesus was in his home town. Sick people were healed, demons were driven out, and crowds flocked to see him.

For Britain in 2020, that beacon shone out when a war veteran started walking laps of his garden to raise money for NHS Charities. Captain Tom Moore, 99 years old, became a media sensation, recorded a chart-topping song with Michael Ball, and was knighted by the Queen.

The trouble with beacons is that they don’t last forever. Jesus was anxious to move on to preach in other towns, leaving Capernaum behind. This week we received the sad news that Captain Sir Tom is no longer with us, having died of covid complications to a previous lung disease.

It’s when we’ve grown used to the light that the darkness seems darkest.

Job is a case in point. The full story of Job in the Bible begins with a successful man, blessed with wealth, health, plentiful flocks, and a large family. But God permits multiple disasters to fall upon him: his flocks are stolen, his children die in a building collapse, and his skin is blighted by sores. Little wonder, then, that in the First Reading we heard today, Job has decided to throw himself a pity party. “Woe is me!” Job, fretful and worn out, has reached the point where he can see nothing but the negatives of life on earth. When his friends try to cheer him up, Job reasonably responds by asking what he has left to live for. Even encouraging words are not enough to raise his spirits. Job dismally muses, “My eyes will never again see joy.”

Strangely, Job’s misery reminds me of the story of an irrepressibly joyful woman who sat through a cheerless sermon. The preacher went on and on about the danger of going to hell because of our sins, where – as Jesus indeed does say in the Bible – there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Yet every time the preacher warned of the dangers of hell, the woman’s smile grew wider. Eventually, the preacher could stand it no more. He fixed the woman with a stare and said, “Madam! Do you understand nothing of what I am saying? Do you not realise that Jesus warned us of a place of eternal torment where your teeth will gnash forever?”

The woman opened her smiling mouth to reveal a gummy grin. “No teeth!” she declared proudly.

“Teeth,” declared that preacher, “will be provided!”

What today’s preacher, however, would say to Job and does say to you, is that new eyes will also be provided – eyes that will once again behold the joy of life. Job’s misery is not the Bible’s final answer. God will raise up for us new bodies in a new heaven and a new earth. Yes, Jesus did walk among us healing sick people and driving away evil, but that wasn’t his core purpose in coming. His purpose – and the mission which also drove St Paul – was to preach the Good News that God was close to us. It is because God is close to us that we are invited to change and to believe.

Sometimes, we can hang on to joy by our own human abilities. In the film Life is Beautiful, the irrepressible Guido woos his future wife by constantly greeting her with the salutation, “Buongiorno Principessa!” Good Day, Princess! Later, when they are in separate wings of a concentration camp, Guido manages to gain access to the public address system, and his opening words, to encourage his wife, are – of course – Buongiorno Principessa!” She knew, then, that she was not alone.

When Captain Tom recorded a song for charity, he chose the anthem, “You’ll never walk alone.” Some famous sporting songs have religious roots, but this one was written by Rogers & Hammerstein for the musical, Carousel, and later adopted by Liverpool FC.

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark

Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone.

Why will we never walk alone? At the human level, because in our care for one another, we can and do reach out to one another – and I’ve spoken several times in the last year about the importance of picking up the phone to call those who might be alone at this time. But also because when we need help, we must overcome that pride which stops us asking for help, especially when it concerns our own mental health. It would be a great misfortune to be alone simply because I chose not to ask someone to walk with me through my secret storms.

Jesus not only left one town to preach in another, he finally left us on earth to take up his seat at the right hand of his Father in heaven. Before he left us, he declared:

“I will not leave you orphans! … In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live… Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

John 14: 18, 19, 23

So if you are in a dark place this week, if you need to be filled with that light which only God can give, today is a good day to pray. Heavenly Father – Lord Jesus Christ – Holy Spirit – come and make your home within me. Teach me anew that I am not an orphan, for I have a Father in heaven and the light of Christ to guide me on earth. Holy Spirit, fill me with all the gifts I need to go boldly forward, and make me a beacon of hope for others – through Christ, Our Lord. Amen.

The ART of Discernment

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

You’ll never believe what you’re about to learn in this sermon!

Discover THE three things you need to do to avoid being taken in!

Do I have your interest yet? Are you afraid of missing out? Stay tuned!

What I’ve just given you is clickbait. Don’t worry, I don’t normally preach like this. But you know what I’m talking about. You can’t go far on the internet before spotting links which get your attention. And you know what? Although you know you shouldn’t, you click on them! And yes, I click on them sometimes. Even Dr Mike Brooks admits he clicks on them sometimes – and he’s the psychologist who wrote the book on the dangers of clickbait!

Our brains are good at being tricked into wanting things that we don’t need or even like! When we start wanting something right in front of us – whether it’s a chocolate biscuit or the next YouTube video – it’s very easy to reach out for it. And we have even greater incentive if we feel afraid that we’d be missing out if we didn’t. Oh no! What if I don’t take this opportunity to discover which six saints (warning, this link is clickbait) were canonised by Pope Francis without the usual evidence for a miracle? Relax – nothing bad’s going to happen if you don’t find out.

Moses told the Israelites to expect a great prophet – but to beware, because false prophets would also rise up among them. Jesus was recognised as speaking as one who had authority, a true prophet. Today, we’re surrounded by many voices. Some claim to have the authority of Truth – and some claim to have the authority of God. We need to pause and ask ourselves: “Whose voice am I listening to?”

Clickbait is easy to recognise, though not so easy to resist. Other voices are more subtle. Have you ever had one of those chain emails or WhatsApp messages which begins: “My best friend’s aunt is a nurse in hospital X, and wants you to know what’s really going on…?” Be very careful. You trust your best friend to know whether their aunt is reliable. But as soon as the message gets forwarded, it’s no longer YOUR friend’s aunt, but someone else’s – so is your trust misplaced? A message like this plays on our fears. What are THEY trying to cover up? This must be the truth because it’s been sneaked out from under THEM!

Let’s pause and take stock here. We have two professions in our midst whose job is to root out the truth: scientists and journalists. Scientists make their money testing how physical or medical things work and gathering the evidence to back up what they say. But it’s not enough to be ‘just a scientist’. Even if someone’s a professor at a medical college, check what they do. A nutritionist or chemist has no more authority than me, with my physics degree, to speak about virus safety.

Journalists earn their pay by testing claims just like the message from the “aunt in the hospital”. If there is a cover-up, there’ll be a journalist breaking a story about it – all you have to do is run a quick search on the internet. The same applies to computer viruses – if you ever read that “Bill Gates says virus 21X is about to trash your computer for ever!” – just search. If Bill Gates really did say that, it’ll be on the record somewhere prominent. But I can guarantee what you’ll find – you’ll get a hit for one of those sites that list well known hoaxes and scams (this link is to a page by Sophos, one of the major providers of computer antivirus software).

As Christian believers, we might receive a message that a prophet or visionary has declared, in God’s name, that we are being asked to say certain prayers, or take certain actions to come under divine protection. Now that’s not impossible – the Israelites under Moses received a true warning to place their homes under the protection of the blood of the Passover Lamb. But again, we must be cautious. We can ask two questions – did the person actually say this? And is the source reliable? For instance, if you hear a claim that one of the Medjugorje visionaries had declared something – and I’m not making any statement here about whether Medjugorje is a place of true or false visions – the first thing you should do is check the official Medjugorje website. If the claim isn’t listed there, you can safely conclude it’s a false claim. Or if you’ve seen a YouTube video where an apparent “prophet” makes some pronouncement, check out that person’s credentials. Are they in good standing with their bishop or congregation leader? Do they have a reputation for receiving accurate prophecies which have blessed people? If the answer to either question is no, then relax – otherwise you’d be giving authority to fear instead of to God.

A few minutes ago, I promised three things you should do to avoid being taken in. And I’ve kept my promise! The ART of discernment – that’s A.R.T. – is to ask these questions:

  • Is it Authentic – in other words, was the claim was made by the person whose name is attached to it?
  • Is it Reliable – that is, does the person responsible have the authority to speak on this subject?
  • Is it Tested – have other journalists, scientists, or church leaders endorsed the claim?

The ART of discernment is only to accept what is Authentic, Reliable & Tested.

Friends, we live in a troubled and worried world; the last thing we need is unnecessary anxiety. Go back nearly 2000 years and there were people who wanted to tell you the ‘real but hidden story’ about Jesus: we call them gnostics. Many were taken in, driven by that same fear of missing out which haunts us today. As followers of Jesus, we should be people of true authority; I appeal to you not to forward any chain emails or WhatsApp messages unless you have checked them out and found them to be authentic. We know the Devil is a deceiver; do not serve his purposes! Be servants of Truth, and the authority of Christ will shine in you.

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.