Imagine Heaven

Yesterday, I was at a gathering of Christian ministers in South Wales addressed by Julian Richards, leader of New Wine Cymru. He recommended a book, Imagine Heaven – suffice it to say, the fact I have read it from cover to cover in the last 24 hours is a recommendation that it is a good book

Many, many people in the last 100 years and before, have reported “Near Death Experiences” (NDEs) – following a life-threatening injury or serious illness, they have reported experiences of leaving their body, and commonly (but not always), seeing their own body from the outside, travelling down a tunnel, meeting a being of light, and being taken on a review of the positive and negative actions in their whole life. There is a growing body of scientific literature analysing these reports, looking for common threads, and trying to understand what is going on. Is it an artefact of what happens to consciousness in a dying brain? Is it a spiritual gift to encourage or convert a person’s behaviour? Or is it a foretaste of what will happen to all of us when we take our final journey?

There are several ways a Christian could seek to analyse these reports objectively. One would be to look at all the possible explanations and weigh their merits and demerits. Another would be to make the working assumption that they are genuine spiritual experiences and try to list how each experience matched up to a number of spiritual worldviews. The third would be to assume that the Christian worldview revealed in Scripture is correct, and see how the actual experiences reported, stripped of the personal interpretation put on them by the recipients, measure up to what a Christian would expect. It is this third path which has been taken by the author, John Burke, who trained as an engineer and is now a Christian pastor

Burke finds that NDE reports from non-Christian cultures are generally compatible with Christian understanding: a study of Indians commonly found reports of meeting a Being with a Book, which Hindus naturally interpreted as a ledger of karma, but can also be understood as the books of personal deeds and the Book of Life spoken of in the last book of the New Testament, the Apocalypse, or Revelation, of St John. Burke repeatedly notes that atheists, surgeons and pilots – well-paid professionals with nothing to gain and reputations to lose – have reported meeting Christ or a Christ-like being of light, even if they were not Christians prior to their experience.

Imagine Heaven is not written from a Catholic perspective, but I find nothing in it contrary to Catholic teaching. A small proportion of the NDEs are visions which seem to be of hell rather than heaven, sometimes eased when the person cried out to God for help – but by definition, an NDE is not a passage into irreversible judgement, since the person’s earthly life is not yet over. Several case studies have the soul near death being met by pairs of angels (and the author notes the Gospel passage establishing the existence of guardian angels is plural, though ambiguous about whether there is one angel per soul – it only says that ‘children have angels’.) One case study has the soul being met and showed around heaven by ‘a woman’, though Burke does not speculate on who the woman’s identity might be. Nor is Purgatory discussed directly – but there is one fleeting reference to a soul who, having met Jesus, asked what happens if a person is not ready to enter into perfect love? The answer was that they “freeze”, further explained as: “They just lock up and . . . think about themselves. . . . They want to move forward but they’re not ready to.” 

This book has challenged me to think again about my ideas of what happens to us at death. I realised that until now, I had a very hands-on idea of God reaching down, plucking the soul from the body, and putting it where it was meant to go. But if modern medicine is able to rescue more and more patients from the brink of death, this fits poorly with a God who knows in advance who is going to recover. Except for those cases where a soul needs to be challenged to conversion or encouraged in its good works, why would God ‘take’ a soul only to put it back? Rather, perhaps this is evidence for the nature of the human soul, which is unconstrained and able to experience the afterlife as a dying body shuts down but not totally released until the body is beyond repair? (The idea of a ‘silver cord’ is found in scripture, at Ecclesiastes 12:6 – perhaps this is more than poetry?) The ‘judgment’ may indeed be more about the soul’s own response to the pure light which is God, than an active gathering or dismissing by order of a divine judge.

Souls in heaven are generally reported as being shaped like human bodies yet translucent and permeable to the matter of heaven. The appearance is often around 30 years old, but there are reports of children and of ‘eternally young grandparents’ – suggesting that the way appearance is communicated, is malleable. Heaven is pictured as a beautiful landscape, with no seas but a river of life literally flowing ‘through’ those who plunge into it, and as a great city filled with light. Delicious fruits can be tasted from trees which immediately regrow any fruit picked, and a flower borrowed from the ground to sample its scent immediately re-roots itself on being put down. Colours, fragrances and other sensory experiences are reported as being much richer than our earthly experience. Joyful meetings with family members and friends are generally mediated by thought rather than speech, though there are also reports of souls joining with songs of praise. The one image which seems absent is of souls sharing a meal together – perhaps this experience must await the general resurrection of the body?

When I first became a Christian in my teens, I remember reading the Book of Revelation and excitedly pondering what sort of apartment I would have when I reached the heavenly city, and who my neighbours would be. In more recent years, when my closest friendships have been long-distance relationships squeezed into the cracks of priestly ministry, I have sometimes pondered what it will be like when I can enjoy these relationships when they reach their fullness in heaven, without the constraints of limited time or interpersonal misunderstanding. There, I look forward to ‘knowing and being fully known’ (I Corinthians 13:12), not only in my relationship with Christ, but with all the members of His Body I have already started to love on earth.

Burke speculates that St Paul himself may have had an NDE, perhaps at the time he was ‘beaten and left for dead’ – resulting in his ‘knowing a man caught up into heaven’. I had never thought of St Paul as having had an NDE rather than a simple vision, but it is fascinating to imagine how this might have informed his writings, alongside the Book of Revelation which is explicitly framed as a vision of heaven. Imagine Heaven is not Scripture, and adds to Scripture only people’s claimed experiences – and yet those experiences fit so well with what we already know from Scripture that I, for one, will now be daydreaming in richer images when I meditate on the last mystery of the rosary – the Coronation of Our Lady and the Glory of all the Saints!

Children in Spiritual Need

Assembly at Corpus Christi High School, 20 November 2017

I wonder how many of you spent Friday night watching the BBC’s Children in Need appeal? If you did, you’ll have seen lots of short films about children in different kinds of need and how money raised has been able to help them. This morning, I’d like to show you two more children in need…

We live in a world where things go wrong. Children are born sick, or get sick, or have accidents and become badly injured. Parents, too, can be struck down by some illness or injury.

It was exactly the same when Jesus was alive! He lived in a world where we didn’t have the medical knowledge we have today. The Bible tells us that twice he raised children back to life when they had died. He healed people who were deaf, blind, or couldn’t walk – in one case, a man who had been disabled for 38 years!

Some scholars look at the world we live in and decide to blame God. They say that if God can’t do anything to fix it, he’s not very powerful and isn’t much of a god. But if God could fix it and chooses not to, he’s a mean god and not worthy of our attention. Me? I don’t think either of those answers are right.

When I was 11 years old, my grandma died. I was hurting, and I had a choice. I could choose to blame God, as the person who took my granny away – or I could turn to God for help, believing he could do something about it. I chose to ask God for help, and that was when I discovered that God was really there and wanted to help me and guide me.

The families in the video we have just seen also chose to turn to God for help. When these children were ill, they found strength from God through the sacrament of anointing the sick.

Jesus came into a world of sick people and said: “God is with you and wants to help you.” How does God want to help us? Sometimes by a miraculous cure – indeed, behind every saint canonized, there’s a story of God allowing someone to become seriously ill, and then receiving a miracle through asking the prayers of that saint. But often God wants to help us by walking with us through the times of darkness. We’re going to learn a song now which helps us understand what God wants to say to us in difficult times.


This assembly uses Children in Need as a cultural starting point and is not meant to endorse Children in Need. There are legitimate concerns about the morality of some of the projects it funds, as articulated by John Smeaton. On the other hand, Catholics are allowed freedom of conscience to choose something largely good which has some negative aspects – you can read my essay on how far we can compromise.

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.

 

 

Dear Deacon Ditewig, I remain confused!

Dear Deacon Ditewig,

As one Catholic blogger to another, both ordained Catholic ministers with PhDs, I have to say that despite your recent post, I remain confused. I don’t disagree with Pope Francis – I can’t, because I don’t fully grasp what he is is asking me to do. Perhaps that’s because of a different kind of polarisation, which has nothing to do with traditional/liberal viewpoints in the church and everything to do with the way we think about right and wrong.

I fully recognise that I live in a polarised church. Many Catholics, particularly those formed in the 60s and following decades, are humanitarians. They fully embrace the command to “love your neighbour” and are rather uncomfortable with those church teachings (e.g. about divorce, contraception, abortion) which make life more difficult for people in already-difficult situations (many don’t seem comfortable with the idea of a God who reveals Himself and speaks with authority). Meanwhile, a generation of young Catholics, particularly upcoming seminarians, have taken refuge in the outer trappings of identity, taking comfort in cassocks, Latin, and various traditions dating back 500 or 1000 years, though not to the time of Christ himself.

The thing is, I find myself in neither of these groups. I am an evangelical Catholic, seeking the voice of Christ in Scripture, Apostolic Tradition, and the Magisterium, and willing to set aside my own preferences for the sake of obedient unity. Before Pope Francis, I did not wash women’s feet at the Maundy Thursday Mass. A year following his election, guided by his example (and sensing that he wished to lead by example rather than issuing documents), I washed women’s feet at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper for the first time. But I felt more comfortable about doing so after the Vatican had made it official.

I want to live out my Catholic priesthood faithful to Jesus Christ and to the directives of the Magisterium. But I find it difficult to make sense of Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis says explicitly he does not intend to set out case examples to guide us, because we as parish priests need to “accompany” and “discern” individual cases of persons who have entered a second union after a failed marriage. But what is it that I am to discern?

Do I recognise that there is moral good present in a relationship which is faithful and expressive of agape love, but which lacks the Church’s blessing? (AL 292) Yes, of course.

Do I recognise that some Catholics don’t have a fully developed understanding of their call to faithfulness in a marriage blessed by the Church? (AL 295) Yes, that too.

At the root of all of this is the teaching of Our Lord himself, who forbade divorce (with the exception of ‘porneia‘, which the scholars still argue about), tempered by St Paul’s privilege for a Christian abandoned by an unbelieving spouse.

The problem with marriage is that, for a person to be validly married, they must stand up in public and declare themselves to be freely entering into an unbreakable, lifelong, commitment. Now, if in my conversation with the person, I find that they didn’t understand this, I have grounds to believe the original marriage was invalid. But if they did understand this, what is left to discern?

In AL 300, Pope Francis sets out that there are many different cases of second unions, and priests may need to accompany such partners in an examination of conscience; in some cases, we may find that there was “no grave fault” on the part of the divorced person. The Pope says there can be no double standards and there is no “gradualness in the law”. I take this to mean that in working with such a person, I can help ease the guilt they may feel about the failure of the first relationship, but I must also help them understand that they have made a promise to God to live in lifelong fidelity to that partner, since the same law applies to every sacramental marriage.

Pope Francis then points out (AL 305) that a person in objective sin may partially or even totally lack subjective culpability and still be living in God’s grace. In footnote 351 he reminds us that the Confessional must be a place of mercy and the Eucharist is medicine for the sick. Clearly by placing these footnotes where they are, the Pope is asking me to consider whether I should offer absolution or holy communion to a person in a second union. But how can I absolve a person for breaking a promise of life-long faithfulness if that person is not yet willing or able to resume keeping the promise?

Reading on (AL 308), Pope Francis indicates his preference for a “less rigorous” approach which intrinsically allows space for confusion. Well, I am certainly confused. I am not helped by noticing that while the Polish Bishops have affirmed the status quo, the Maltese Bishops have indicated that in certain circumstances, persons in second unions might receive absolution and communion, and be admitted as godparents. If the Magisterium says it is not possible to give clear rules or even case studies of when I should say yes or no, how am I to make my discernment?

My PhD is not in Theology (though I have a first class Bachelor’s in Theology) – it is in Astrophysics. While you sail the seas, I navigate the heavens. I have a mathematical mind, trained in logic and principles. And perhaps that is the problem. These days, we understand that people have different thinking styles. Not everyone’s brain tackles moral problems the same way. Some brains see things more in terms of principles; others see consequences. It might be the case (I’d love to have the research time to test this) that professors of moral philosophy are more likely than average human beings to be biased to think in terms of principles. Perhaps Pope Francis, and Jesuits in general, have an aptitude for discerning imperfect courses of action which lead a step closer to God’s will without reaching its fullness.

Pope Francis does not want to throw the floodgates open for everyone. But he does want me, as a parish priest, to discern whether a particular individual might approach the sacraments without ruling out that possibility. “Discerning” means I can’t decide a priori to allow everyone or no-one to do so. But without (non-binding) case studies and examples, I don’t know what I am looking for.

There have been many times in my life when I have chosen to act on principle even though I foresaw the consequences may have been problematic. I did so before I became a Catholic; and once I was a Catholic, I took comfort in the idea that the Church teaches that there are intrinsic evils, so morality depends on principles rather than consequences. I know that saints have been martyred for holding to their principles. But I also know that a strong reason that I live by my principles is that I am “wired” to do so, and not all human beings are wired like me.

Deacon Ditewig, you have suggested that those who say Pope Francis’ words are “confusing” are really hiding the fact that they disagree with him. But please hear me when I say that if the Magisterium teaches clearly that I am to deny communion to those in second unions, I will do so; if the Magisterium teaches clearly that I am to admit them, I will do so (while still maintaining that such relationships are prima facie adulterous; I recognise that the Eucharist can be medicine for sinners). As a parish priest I have been charged with “discerning and accompanying” individuals towards a possible decision to admit them to communion, a process which is as alien to my science-shaped mind as it seems intuitive to Pope Francis (who graduated as a chemical technician, and is therefore skilled in providing solutions).

Therefore I remain, respectfully,

Confused of Cardiff.

(Revd Dr Gareth Leyshon, PhD, MInstP, MA (Oxon), BTh, Director of Ongoing Formation of the Archdiocese of Cardiff – views are my own)

Doin’ the Right Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


* Adapted from Jesuits Telling Jokes.

Glimpses of Immortality

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

We are immortal souls, destined to rise again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are immortal souls, destined to rise again.

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

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

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

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

What kind of saint will you be?

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

What kind of saint do you want to be?

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

What kind of saint do you want to be?

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

What kind of saint do you want to be?

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

What kind of saint do you want to be?

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

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

What kind of saint do you want to be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of saint do you want to be?

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

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

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

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

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


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