The Fault in Our Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Some book links from my friends:

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

Clink on the link for bookishness, go to book lists

Episode 48, age appropriateness

 

Film recommendations

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

 

Up to age 14

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

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

Age 14+

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

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

Walking Away

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Year A.

Are you ready to walk away from Jesus?

Those two disciples on the road to Emmaus were downcast and had low expectations.

Jesus was dead.

Hope was dead.

Their faith was shattered. It was time to go home. It was time to walk away.

When he celebrated the Last Supper, Jesus warned his friends that they would fall away from him. “No Lord, I will never deny you!” said Peter. But before 24 hours had passed, he had denied Jesus three times and walked away from the Cross. It’s easy to be like Peter – “Lord, even if everyone else walks away, I will never abandon you.” But solemnly, I say to  you here today, that before the month of May is out, some of you will walk away from Jesus.

In the coming month, we will celebrate five First Communion Masses. That means lots of guests will join us for Sunday Mass. It might mean those services take us out of our comfort zone. Some of our guests won’t be used to church at all and might do things we find awkward – eating, drinking, not respecting silences – God forbid, someone might actually sit in the place you normally sit! Some latecomers might find that it is standing room only.

Last year we adopted a Parish MISSION STATEMENT. It says: The parish of St Philip Evans is a welcoming Catholic community… we care for those in need and spread the message of Christ.

This coming month, it’s time for us to put this statement into practice. To be a “welcoming Catholic community” we have to turn up with good will and make our guests very welcome. In order to spread the message of Christ, we must first love and welcome people who don’t yet know him.

In past months I have talked about some very general expectations. Now I have a very specific one to share with you. As your parish priest, if St Philip Evans is the church you normally come to for Mass, I expect you to be here for the First Communion weekends. If you are in good health, I expect you to stand so guests can sit. If you can help with something practical – welcoming, taking the collection – we will need extra helpers. Resist the temptation to say “It’s going to be packed, I am going somewhere else.” Jesus is coming to visit this parish! He is coming hidden in our guests, people who may not even know they are made in his image. But the way we welcome any guest is the way we welcome Christ himself. Resist the temptation to walk away from Jesus.

There is another temptation we must beware of. Parents, many of you will be tempted not to bother coming to Mass once your children have made their First Communion.

I ask you: do you believe that the Sacred Host, the wafer that your children will soon receive, is truly the Body of Jesus who died on the cross, rose from the dead, and is the One who will judge the human race at the end of time?

I know what many of you are thinking right now. “You don’t have to go to church to be a good person.”

You are correct! There are millions of good people in the world who care for others and never go near a church during their life! But that’s the answer to the wrong question.

Do you have to go to church to be a God person?

Do you have to come to Holy Communion to be a friend of Jesus?

It’s not always easy to understand what God wants. How long had Cleopas and his companion been listening to Jesus preach before they got that personal tuition on the road to Emmaus? But then their eyes were opened when Jesus broke bread! Then they knew that the greatest news in human history was true!

I wish I could spend a day with each First Communion family, to talk about the questions you have about God, and what Jesus wants to offer you personally. I wish I had time to do for each one of you what Jesus did for Cleopas and his friend. With them, Jesus didn’t preach, he just asked “tell me about this Jesus, you had so much hope in, what was his message?” He started where they were at, and drew them deeper into his love.

By the end of their walk, those two disciples understood the message. God sent Jesus as a baby. When he grew up he worked miracles. He rose from the dead to give us FAITH (the knowledge that God is real) and HOPE (the knowledge that Heaven is open and waiting for the friends of Jesus). Those two disciples had hoped for an earthly kingdom. Only now did they realise that they were called to Heaven. Only when Jesus broke the bread, did their hearts understand who was with them!

I can’t give you what Jesus gave them. I can’t make your hearts burn within you when you hear the gospel or a great sermon. I can’t open your eyes during the breaking of bread today, so that you know beyond doubt that Jesus is here. I can’t make you so excited about Jesus that you run seven miles in the dark to go to a place where Mass was celebrated. But Jesus can.

Who gets into heaven? The friends of Jesus get into heaven. Good people who never knew him on earth can make friends with Jesus at the gate of heaven. But what about us? Jesus wants to make us his friends on earth.

Parents, I know that by the end of June, many of you will have walked away from Jesus. You will have enjoyed your child’s First Communion and you will want your weekend back to do other things. Jesus loves you. As long as you live on earth he will be ready to forgive you for walking away and will welcome you back when you are ready to come back to Church. But don’t leave it until the day you meet him as a Judge at the gates of heaven.

Better still, don’t walk away at all. God’s people, who know that Jesus wants to feed us every Sunday in Holy Communion, don’t walk away from Mass. We need you in this parish of St Philip Evans – with you worshipping with us every week, we are stronger.

So I say to you again: This coming month, we will all be tempted to walk away from Jesus. Let’s resist that temptation. Let’s put our faith in Jesus and encourage one another. It is time to make this parish our home. Let’s walk to heaven together.

 

 

 

 

Talk About Jesus!

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Year C.

How many of your children still attend Mass?

How many of their children still attend Mass?The front cover of the book "Do You Love Me?" with a red sky and a fishing boat on a shore

Don’t answer the question aloud – but I know this is a great source of pain for many of us who have tried to raise children as Catholics. Perhaps it leaves us doubting ourselves.

Yet… reflect on this. Never, in any of the Gospels, do any of the disciples manage to catch a fish without help!*

If they are fishing at sea, they have to put the nets where Jesus shows them.

If they are catering on land, they rely on a small boy offering up his fish supper.

Today, Jesus is grilling some fish already!

Who did Jesus choose to be his “fishers of men”? Only the most incompetent fishermen in all of Galilee!

So if any of us doubt that we are the right people to be passing on the Catholic faith, think again. We can do it – but we have to follow the Lord’s instructions.

There was a time when it was good enough for us to simply show our children and our friends how to be Catholic. We did what Catholics do: we went to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, we abstained from meat on Fridays, we got involved in devotions and parish clubs. We relied on peer pressure and respect for the authority of the church, so that other people did the same things with us.

That doesn’t work any more. From the 1960s in Britain, and from the 90s in Ireland, we lost that intangible sense of Church being something we had to do as part of life. Some of you have come to Cardiff from nations and cultures which still hold that respect for the Catholic faith. For now, your children share your passion for church – but they will soon be pulled away by the Godless culture which is 21st century Britain. It won’t be enough to show them how to live as Catholics – you will need to motivate them to be followers of Jesus and members of the Catholic Church.

So, start with yourself. What motivates you to live as a Catholic? For some us, the answer is a sense of belonging. This is our church building – the people who gather here are our friends. That’s a good start – but Jesus asks us to go deeper. Why do we say prayers, listen to readings from the Bible, and celebrate Holy Communion? Is it because it’s what our friends do? Is it because it’s what our priests had told us to do? Or is it because we believe in Jesus and are doing what He has invited us to do?

If we come from a Catholic family, and we look back far enough, we’ll discover that one of our ancestors became Catholic because someone talked about Jesus, and passed on his invitation. Perhaps it was St Thomas the Apostle in Kerala. Perhaps it was St Patrick in Ireland, or one of the first missionaries to the Philippines. After all, if no-one had talked about religion, your family would never have become a Catholic family.

Talking about Jesus isn’t easy. In fact, many of us learned at our mother’s knee that we should “never talk about religion or politics” because this isn’t done in polite company. Certainly, talking about religion the wrong way leads to heated arguments. The Jewish leaders in today’s reading warned Peter and the other apostles not to talk about Jesus. Did they stop? Of course not! They travelled far and wide preaching and teaching, and most of them died for what they believed and taught.

We are all called to be “fishers of men” – that is, to invite men and women to be followers of Jesus and members of our Church. There’s a right way and wrong way to do this. The wrong way is to start by trying to persuade other people that our religion is right. There’s certainly a place for Catholic Voices to defend our beliefs on the media, but that rarely persuades a skeptic or an open-minded person to become a Catholic. Instead, let’s explore the right way to talk about faith – and we can use this with our children, our grandchildren, our work colleagues and our friends. We need to do two things – tell our own story, and ask the right questions.

No-one can fault us for sharing our own story. If someone asks you this week what you did on the weekend, you can say, “I went to church, and heard a thought-provoking sermon”. If, and only if, that person asks what the sermon was about, tell them! Within your own family, do you tell your children and grandchildren about those days where you sense God being close to you when you say your prayers? That’s not boasting – it’s helping the next generation have a realistic understanding of what it’s like to have a connection with God.

Then we can ask questions. “Do you think about spiritual things?” “Do you think there’s anyone in charge of the Universe?” “Have you ever thought of visiting church?” According to a recent survey, there are three million people in Britain who would go to church if only one of their friends invited them!

Remember, a failure is only someone who hasn’t succeeded yet. Jesus told his incompetent fishermen to put out the nets on the other side for a catch, and their haul was massive! So even if you feel you have failed to persuade your family or your friends of the goodness of the Catholic Faith, Jesus is asking you to have another go, but to do it differently. Put out your nets for a catch!

 

* This observation was made by Raymond Brown in his commentary on John’s Gospel.