A Step in the Right Direction

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

When your brother does something wrong, go and correct him. If it’s your sister who’s sinning, go and correct her!

Before we rush off on a moral crusade to change the world, though, we need to listen carefully to this Gospel.An octagonal red sign with STOP written in white capitals

Jesus is teaching about “your brother”, which means a fellow-member of the Church community. If we are all committed Catholics, then we will want to live our lives according to Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is calling us to correct other people who have signed up to the same standards as we have. When he preached his challenge to correct the sinner, he was preaching to a Jewish audience who had a shared moral code. In our First Reading, Ezekiel was called to rebuke Israel – the nation which had made a special promise to follow God’s laws – and those individuals God pointed out to him.

Note also that Jesus talks about your brother ‘doing something wrong’. Often we get upset about the things that other people haven’t done… we feel hurt, let down, disappointed. But we should be slow to rush to judgment on these matters, because there could be a thousand good reasons why your sister or brother couldn’t do that thing, even if they’d made a solemn promise. In these cases, we need to keep our anger in check and gently ask the reason why.

Many moral acts depend on our personal circumstances. Nevertheless, our bishops at the Second Vatican Council, and St John Paul II, taught that there are certain human actions which are always so bad that there can never be a reason to justify them. The technical name for these things is “intrinsic evils”.

It makes sense to me that God would give us a clear way to know right and wrong in each generation, when new moral questions arise. Jesus gave St Peter the authority to teach and strengthen his brothers, and I recognise that through this, God is asking us to trust each Pope to teach us morals. This needs a big act of humility to admit that I don’t know best by my own powers of reasoning – true Christian humility!

This week, the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was asked whether he believed abortion was wrong even when a woman had been made pregnant against her will. Rarely for a politician, he gave a straight answer – yes, even in those circumstances, he said, abortion was not permissible. Because it is an intrinsic evil, it’s not possible for any of the hard cases we can come up with to make it OK. Right now, the law still recognises this in Ireland, but there’s pressure for change there too.

There are other actions the Catholic Church says are always wrong: examples include use of a weapon of mass destruction, genocide, torture, human trafficking, any sexual act outside of a true marriage between a man and a woman, and any intervention which makes a fertile sexual act deliberately infertile. These, and more, are listed by St John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (no. 80), who reminds us the idea comes from St Paul, who wrote (Rom 3:8) that we “cannot do evil so that good may come of it”.

We believe in a God who longs to forgive us, but before we can be forgiven, we must repent. And before we can repent, we must recognise that there is something wrong in our behaviour. Perhaps we’re not comfortable with some of these church teachings. At a human level, we can come up with all sorts of counter-arguments. But as Catholic followers of Jesus, the question that really matters is: “What is God’s teaching here?”

Some of us instinctively think of right and wrong in terms of rules and duties. If God says something is wrong, even though we foresee tough consequences in hard cases, we might be willing to swallow this bitter pill because it seems logical that there’s no other way around things.

Many of us will think of right and wrong in terms of consequences… we ask what decision would cause least pain to others? It’s right to want to minimise pain and maximise happiness, and when we are choosing between two possible good courses of action which may have side-effects, that’s the way we naturally make decisions. But intrinsic evils are different – we cannot choose to do evil directly so that good may come.

St Paul reminds us (Rom 8:28) that God turns all things to the good for those who love Christ Jesus. When we look at the possible consequences of a moral choice, do those consequences include God stepping in to help those who make a heroic decision to do the hard thing and follow God’s law? If we don’t believe that, what does this say about our lack of trust in God?

Meanwhile, we live in a world that doesn’t share these moral values. Sometimes members of our own family, even those who were brought up Catholic, won’t share them. And if you’ve ever tried to impose your moral values on someone else, you’ll know that’s a hiding to nothing.

Jesus doesn’t ask us to correct those who are not our brothers and sisters in the Church. He asks us to share Good News with them. The Good News is Jesus is real, and willing to forgive anything they already sense they’ve done wrong. THAT must be our starting point. Later, they will ask about Jesus’ teaching, and then we can share hard truths, when they are ready and willing to hear it. But that’s not where we should begin.

Today’s Gospel is one of the most challenging instructions that Jesus has given us. In today’s Second Reading, we heard that all commandments are summed up by “love your neighbour as yourself”. True love is tough love – if you love a fellow Christian, help them to avoid sin and become a saint. After all, isn’t that what you would want for yourself?

Messengers from Heaven!

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time(The Sunday designated for the National Collection in support of Walsingham.)

What would you do if someone came from Heaven with a message for you?

A quick look around the world shows us what most Catholics do when a message comes from heaven – they build a shrine and go there on pilgrimage. “This must be a holy place, God’s messenger has been there! If we go, good blessings will rub off on us!”

Well, maybe.

Suppose you have a granny who lives in Australia – or Manila – or Kerala. But something wonderful happens! Granny comes to stay with you in Cardiff for a whole six months. It’s really lovely having granny around. But those six months come to an end, and granny is getting ready to go home. Before she goes, she sits down in your living room and makes a little speech: “My dear grandchildren! I have to leave you soon. I only ask two things of you: ring me once a month, and do try to make up after the quarrel you had with your cousins last year.”

After granny flies home, you miss her so much, that you decorate the guest room she stayed in with lots of pictures of her, and spray around the perfume she always wore. Now and then you lie on the bed she slept on, and remember her fondly. But after a few months, life gets so busy, that you stop ringing granny every month, and as for that quarrel with your cousins – no, it’s just too painful to go there, so you never sort things out.

So if that happens, have you done what granny wanted?

This is the trap we so easily fall into. There are many places around the world where people claim that the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared. Some of these claims have been declared believable by the local bishop or by the Vatican. But often we put all our energy into saying, “How awesome, Our Lady has been here,” and none into following the instructions she gave.

Now it’a true that in some places, the main message has been about establishing a place of pilgrimage: Lourdes in France for the sick, or Banneux in Belgium for the poor. But in other places, the message is one calling us to daily prayer. 99 years ago in Fatima, Our Lady asked us to pray the rosary every day for peace in the world. Then, the main threat was from the military powers engaging in the First World War; today, we face global terrorism; but the need for peace is just as important. In Nicaragua, Our Lady want further, saying to the visionary of Cuapa, “Make Peace. Don’t ask Our Lord for peace because, if you do not make it, there will be no peace.

In Venezuela, Our Lady appeared to the Servant of God, Maria Esperanza, often between 1976 and 2004. Among her many messages, she requested “prayer for the church, for priests and the conversion of sinners; study of Sacred Scripture; frequent Confession and Communion; and charity, solidarity, and social justice for all.”

As members of the Catholic Church, we are under no obligation to believe in any particular apparition of Our Lady. Even when the Vatican has said something is worthy of belief, we are free to take it or leave it. But we are not free to swoon over the shrine while missing the message – to do that would be the height of hypocrisy.

It’s much rarer for visionaries to report visions of Our Lord himself. Most famously, he showed his Sacred Heart to St Margaret Mary Alacoque in 1674, and spoke of his Divine Mercy to St Faustina Kowalska in the early 20th Century. But of course the greatest apparitions were the ones to St Mary Magdalen and the Apostles, demonstrating that he has risen from the dead.

Our Lord was setting us a puzzle in today’s Gospel, imagining Abraham saying “If they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.” Today’s Lazarus was a character in a parable – but we know that Our Lord raised another Lazarus from death, for a human lifetime, and himself returned to show he had entered into the new and eternal life which awaits us all. These apparitions are not given to us to convince us of anything. Rather, they are given to remind us of those good spiritual practices we so easily neglect or avoid.

In today’s letter to St Timothy, we receive advice which applies to all of us: “you must aim to be saintly and religious, filled with faith and love, patient and gentle. Fight the good fight of the faith and win for yourself the eternal life to which you were called … I put to you the duty of doing all that you have been told, with no faults or failures, until the Appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

That is the only apparition which matters. At the Second Coming, or when we appear before Him for judgement at the end of our earthly lives, Our Lord will appear to us, with a cloud of saints attending upon him. Our Lady will not be impressed if we have visited Fatima but not prayed the rosary, or if we have visited Lourdes, but never repented of the sickness in our hearts.

So what’s your favourite apparition? Do you know what message is associated with it? If you do know, be sure to live out the message. And if you don’t know, make it your business to find out!

Positive Energy

Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time(The Sunday following the World Day of Care for Creation – resources from the Vatican, CAFOD, Season of Creation and the global Catholic Climate Movement.)

“It is hard enough to work out what is on earth; who then can discover what is in the heavens?”A wind turbine

Please Lord, I can!

As many of you know, I spent four years studying what is in the heavens, pursuing research in astrophysics at Cardiff University. We live in an amazing age! During the last month we’ve started receiving images from the latest spaceprobe to arrive at Jupiter and discovered that the next-nearest star to our Sun, Proxima Centauri, has a planet orbiting it in a zone which makes liquid water possible!

We also understand Planet Earth better than we’ve ever done before. We don’t have all the answers – right now many scientists are puzzling over whether microbeads in our shower gel are harmful to creatures in the sea – but we do know enough to be worried about humanity’s impact on our planet.

The earth is getting warmer, ice is melting at our poles, and that has consequences for people who live on islands and coastlands. Crops won’t grow in the same places, in the same way, that they would a generation ago. Do we fully understand the way everything in our environment interacts? No. But do we understand enough to be worried? Yes.

Last year, in his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis said that “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.”

Now, I could give a whole lecture on what’s in the Pope’s document, and another on what we can do to help our planet, but our time is short, so I am going to pick just one issue today: Energy.

Almost all the energy we use on Planet Earth comes from sunshine. Coal, oil and natural gas come from plant material, plants which captured sunshine over hundreds of thousands of years, but which we are burning up in decades. When we burn our “fossil fuels”, this produces carbon dioxide, which is a major cause of global warming.

The sun also heats our atmosphere, causing wind, which causes waves; and it evaporates water, which falls as rain, enabling rivers to drive waterwheels. The gravity of the sun and moon cause tides to ebb and flow twice a day. We can even use solar panels to catch the sun’s energy directly. But sunshine, tides, wind and waves aren’t always there when we need them. There are ways of storing large amounts of energy for later, but these aren’t cheap because they need big-scale engineering. At Dinorwig, the “electric mountain” in North Wales, water is pumped from a low lake to a higher one whenever there is surplus electricity to be stored.

Why should we care? The decisions we make today about energy affect our children, and our children’s children. Today’s psalm reminds us that God sees human life come and go, generation after generation. In the Gospel, Our Lord reminds us that we should always take stock of our resources before starting a project. We also need to think about the humans who will inherit this earth long after we awake to the bright morning of heaven. Will we leave them enough oil to make plastic and medicines, or will we have burned it all in our cars and power stations?

CAFOD have reminded us often in recent years that we should “live simply, sustainably, and in solidarity with the poor”. None of us can solve the problem of climate change on our own, but if every person on earth chose to make one small change each, seven billion small changes add up to one huge change for the better!

So what can we do? The good news is that some things we can do won’t cost us money, only time and a little effort – in fact, saving energy equals saving money! Over the last couple of years, you’ll have seen the houses around St Philip Evans Church covered in scaffolding. Local flats were offered external wall insulation – and we advertised the offer in our parish newsletter. One of the first things I did on moving into St Philip Evans Presbytery was to arrange for cavity wall insulation to be pumped into the walls of the house, and for thicker insulating rolls to be laid in the loft – and I didn’t have to pay a penny for it! You can find lots of ideas to help you online from the Energy-Saving Trust.

For those of us who can afford to do so, we can use our money to help drive change. “Green energy” does cost a little more, because of the need to pick up the slack when the sun doesn’t shine. But the more people who insist on having green energy, the more the power companies will invest in the technology. Yes, this means that our landscape will change. When I drive to visit my parents in Llanelli, I see more and more wind turbines being installed along the Neath-Port Talbot coastline. I don’t welcome the blot on the landscape, but I know it’s part of the price we pay for our energy-hungry lifestyle. Earlier this year, 16 Catholic Dioceses in England and Wales agreed to come together to buy 100% green energy, and by belonging to this large consortium, our parish now runs on green energy at an affordable price. If you are willing to pay a little more for your power bills, you can switch to a 100% renewable provider, too; and if you have some money to invest in making long term savings, you could even consider installing solar panels.

The way we buy our energy is a moral issue. The choices we make affect our neighbours in space and in time – those who live at risk of rising sea levels, and our future generations of consumers. Our Lord today challenges you to give up all your possessions! I’m only challenging you to save energy and buy greener energy. As crosses go, this is quite an easy one to carry!