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

Dear & Honourable Mr Burghart,

Thank you for your response of 15 March 2021, in which you addressed my concerns that many vaccines in the UK, including those for the current covid-19 crisis, are sometimes produced and usually tested in human cells derived from aborted foetuses.

You rightly quote from the 2017 document of the Pontifical Academy for Life (which if I may compare Vatican documents to Parliamentary ones, is a kind of Select Committee report for Catholics); this states

we believe that all clinically recommended vaccinations can be used with a clear conscience and that the use of such vaccines does not signify some sort of cooperation with voluntary abortion.

Taken alone, this statement might appear to be an unproblematic invitation to Catholics to simply accept any vaccine offered. However, this statement must be read alongside the more formal 2008 document Dignitas Personae, which has a weight comparable to a manifesto committment made by a winning party. Here paragraph 35 sets out clearly that Catholics who accept a tainted vaccine for the sake of the common good must lobby Government and industry until an untainted alternative can be provided.

I am grateful that you have indicated a willingness to “explore the issue” with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care. Since my first letter to you, it has come to my attention that the US-based Charlotte Lozier Institute is collating research on whether foetal cell-lines are used in the development, mass production and testing of numerous covid-19 vaccines, with results tabulated online. There are now a number of vaccines available – though not yet cleared through UK safety testing – which make no use whatsoever of foetal cell-lines.

The UK is a pioneer in the field of diversity, requiring by law reasonable adjustments to accommodate disability and respecting a wide range of sexual preferences in orientation and identity. It would be entirely in keeping with our committment to diversity to recognise that adherents of certain religions are duty bound to avoid abortion-tainted vaccines whenever possible, and for the NHS to respond by ensuring that at least of one these untainted vaccines is put forward for regulatory approval and then made available for use at a small number of regional centres to which conscientious objectors could travel.

I received my first dose of the problematic AstraZeneca vaccine in March and will therefore receive the second dose as scheduled in June, but I would avail of any ethical alternative provided should booster shots become necessary in due course.

Thank you for taking my concerns seriously, and I hope this further information will be of use as you explore the issues further with colleagues at DHSC.

Yours Sincerely,

Revd Dr Gareth Leyshon

Further Moral Reflections on Covid-19 Vaccines

This week I was sent an article by Revd Dr Leon Pereira OP, a Dominican priest who was formerly a medical doctor. A version of his text can be read online, but I have uploaded the PDF I was sent as the final page’s table is clearer:

In these days of fake news and misinformation, it is important to authenticate sources; Fr Leon can be seen preaching on the same topic in this video from 14 April 2021 which was posted on Facebook alongside a copy of the corresponding text.

Fr Leon sets out clearly that there are two courses of action which are not forbidden to Catholics (and therefore to anyone who wishes to behave ethically), given that many of the available vaccines use cells derived from aborted human embryos in their development, even if not in their production.

One course is to refuse compromised vaccines, but to take personal responsibility for minimising contact with other people, insofar as this is required to continue to prevent the spread of a deadly virus.

The other course is to accept such a vaccine, but to do so under protest. He rightly points out that the most authoritative document produced by the Vatican (Dignitas Personae 34 & 35) states that:

in cases where (1) there are no other choices, (2) where the danger is real, and (3) the safety of children is threatened, then (4) on a temporary basis, such vaccines may be used (5) but pressure must be put on governments, pharmaceutical companies, researchers etc to find an ethically acceptable alternative! Furthermore (6) no one can be compelled to receive vaccination; they have the right to refuse, although they should take precautions to reduce their role in the transmission of the disease during an epidemic.

Dignitas Personae does not restrict the ethical permission to children alone; it states “for example” a parent may choose a vaccine developed using illicit material. It logically follows that there are other cases where we may choose to act for the protection of innocent third parties.

Fr Leon argues that there is ‘no moral difference’ between vaccines grown (for commercial mass production) in cells derived from aborted foetuses and those mass-produced by other methods once the vaccine has been developed using foetal cell-lines. I would disagree, since ‘degree of co-operation’ is relevant in ethical analysis. If illicit cells are used to create a recipe but no such cells are used in production, there is a real difference. The moral problem becomes one of knowledge obtained unethically rather than use of a physical product. If the use of foetal cell-lines were banned in the future, the knowledge would still exist and could be used. There is also an ethical difference between producing vaccines in cell-lines which are immortalised (in principle, no further abortion is needed to replenish the cell-line) and those which are not (the cell-line will eventually die out and will need to be replaced, requiring either a future abortion or use of modified adult stem cells from a consenting donor).

The final page of Fr Leon’s article summarises a more detailed table developed by the Charlotte Lozier Institute showing sourced research on which vaccines use foetal cells for their development, mass production and testing. This is a very helpful document and shows that some vaccines now exist which raise no pro-life objections at all – but these are not the vaccines being made available in the UK through the NHS.

Of course, the sanctity of the unborn human is not the only ethical issue which must be taken into consideration. The German CureVac virus is greenlisted from a pro-life standpoint but uses HeLa cells for quality tasting – cells used for research without permission after being taken from Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman dying from cervical cancer. This raises another kind of ethical question. A third thorny issue is raised by the use of animals in medical research, but here Pope Francis (Laudato Si 130) repeats the teaching in the Catechism that humans may use animals for research “if it remains within reasonable limits [and] contributes to caring for or saving human lives”.

For the record, I received my first dose of the ChAdOX1 AstraZeneca vaccine on 29 March 2021. I did so only after enquiring whether ethical vaccines were available and writing a letter to my MP urging the UK to seek and provide alternatives which are not derived from foetal cell lines. It is in the spirit of my ongoing duty to campaign and seek such alternatives that I publicise Fr Leon’s article and make known the existence of vaccines which have no association with abortion.

In the homily posted above, Fr Leon asks a stark question. Would Jesus or Mary take a vaccine knowing it had been sourced from the killing of a human child in the womb? Before you leap to a particular conclusion on that question, remember that idolatry is a moral crime as heinous as murder. You might well ask whether Jesus or Mary would use a Roman coin bearing the head of an emperor and an inscription proclaiming him to be a god? In fact the Pharisees did ask Jesus precisely that question, and received a surprising answer!

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 

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.

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.

Proclaiming God With Us

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

Who, me?

John the Baptist grew up knowing that he was special. He was born to a mother beyond childbearing age. As he grew up he would have heard the stories of how an angel prophesied his own birth – and how his cousin Jesus, born to a virgin, was heralded by angels and greeted by shepherds and wise men!

What we don’t know is the journey John took to embrace his calling. He was free to accept or reject the religious role his parents raised him in, with the symbols of uncut hair and drinking no alcohol. He not only embraced it but sensed a call from God to preach a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and teach the coming of the Chosen One, the Lamb of God, who would take away the sins of the world.

Who, me?

You, the baptised, have also been given a calling. Like John the Baptist, you are invited to be a witness to speak for the light, to speak about Jesus in a world wrapped in darkness.

Usually the church takes one Sunday in September to remind all of us that this is part of our calling as followers of Jesus. This year, that date has been pushed back until today. And it’s a wonderful time of year to find opportunities to speak about Jesus. The whole nation is able to take a brief pause from the usual rhythm of life to celebrate Christmas. But this is a double-edged blessing. People may think they know the story of Christmas, but fail to grasp its deeper meaning.

Who wouldn’t sympathise with the story of a heavily pregnant woman forced to travel miles by a Government decree, unable to find decent accommodation when labour comes upon her? Whose heart wouldn’t be lifted by the thought of a baby born safely and welcomed with gifts in difficult circumstances?

A recent survey suggests that in Britain, well over two thirds of people know that baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem, laid in a manger and had his birth heralded by angels. But only one third know that the word Emannuel, found in numerous Christmas carols, means “God with us”. As Christmas Missionaries, this is the message we still need to proclaim – that the cherished child in the manger is God-made-man, the God who has not abandoned us, stepping down to be light in our darkness.

In this year, of all years, we will find it harder to speak to people, so we must be creative and find visual images which speak of the light of Christ. So what could we do as witnesses to the light?

You could place a candle or an advent wreath in your window, taking care not to set anything on fire! A light on its own is a sign of hope – but how much more powerful this would be marked with a banner declaring that “Jesus Christ is the light of the world!”

If you have a small nativity set you could place that in your window. But how to make this thought provoking? “God sent choirs of angels to welcome His own Son.”

Maybe you could place a poster in your window. What message would cause people to stop and think? Only a third know the meaning of Immanuel. Maybe this could help:

Here at our community house, our windows are not easy to see from the road, but we have a gate. So each day we’ve been adding a symbol to the gate telling the story of the family tree of Jesus. Often families do this on a tree, a Jesse tree, but we have a Jesse gate. What could you do to present the story of Jesus in a fresh way?

This year, our Catholic bishops are promoting two innovative ways of sharing the Gospel. The One Hope Project, a collective of young Catholic musicians, is running an online event next Sunday afternoon, exploring this question. And the Genesis Mission, pioneered in Plymouth Diocese, offers a seven-week course on why and how Catholics could have conversations about faith with the people they meet.

Words are essential if Jesus is to be known, but words on their own are not enough to make us credible witnesses. If Jesus came to proclaim good news for the poor, what are we doing to help those whose poverty is known to us personally? If Jesus came to bind up the broken-hearted, whose heartbreak can we minister to this month? If Jesus came to set the captives free, how can we offer those in bondage a pathway to prayer wherein they can forgive others, and renounce their own sinful ways?

It’s easy to listen to a sermon, think “Yes, I must do something,” and then let the moment pass. We don’t know what journey John took to reach the conclusion he was called to go and be a voice in the wilderness, but he was faithful to that calling. I don’t know what journey you are on with God, either, but I know God is inviting you to do something, here and now, this Advent.

Is it to reach out to someone in material or emotional poverty?

Is it to place a witness to Christ in your window or at your gate?

Is it to engage with one of the online initiatives I’ve just mentioned, or something else you’ve heard of?

“Pray constantly. Think before you do anything. Never suppress the Spirit.” Mindful of these words of St Paul, I’d like you to stop and pray, right now, “Lord, what are you calling me to do?”

You are special. You are called. You are chosen. Yes, you. Now go and proclaim the Gospel of the Lord.

Spot That Sin!

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

Imagine living a life without spot or stain! That’s a rather lofty ambition. And in fact only two people in the whole history of the human race have achieved it: Our Lord Jesus Christ, and his Blessed Mother, whose Immaculate Conception we celebrate on Tuesday. “Immaculate” in Latin literally means spotless, for a “macula” is a spot.

As for the rest of us, each one of us is a work in progress. We might want to distinguish the stains from the spots: the stains of the deep rooted sins that corrupt our character, and the spots of the little faults of daily life that we can brush off without much consequence. 

It’s important to remember that we can’t work our way into heaven by being good people. None of us is good enough to deserve to go to heaven; all of us can enter by saying sorry to Jesus for the sins that we’ve committed and placing our trust in His forgiveness. That’s why John the Baptist came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins – he prepared a way for the Lord: a way for us to reach the Lord! But once we’ve decided to follow Jesus, God does expect us to do our best to live the life that you would expect of a member of the body of Christ. We are invited to be as perfect as Jesus himself – and that’s a tall order, a lofty ambition. But since we’re going to be perfect saints in heaven, why not start here on Earth?

These days, many people go to counselling and receive what’s called “cognitive behavioural therapy”. That’s a mouthful but it means something simple: recognise what’s not quite right in your behaviour, and choose to do something different next time around. The Catholic Church has known about this for centuries: our traditional name for it is “a firm purpose of amendment”. When a sinner goes to confession, he or she is meant to not only say what they’ve done wrong, but to have a plan in their mind for how they’re going to avoid falling into that trap in future. If you’re not planning to change – however distant the hope of change is – it’s not a proper confession!

You might not be able to get to a Penitential Service this advent, but we’re all capable of offering our own prayers of sorrow to God – and we’re all capable of identifying some areas of our life where there are still spots that need to be dealt with. If you’re not sure what they are, why not ask someone who has the privilege of sharing a home with you, or a colleague at work? They’ll soon tell you what your bad habits are! Perhaps you’re aware of some personal failings that you could work on, but which one should you pick? Maybe it’s the one you get nagged about most! I know you won’t want to, because it feels like giving into the nags – but I’ll let you in to a secret: sometimes the nags are right!

Or maybe it’s that one fault, that one little peccadillo that you just keep turning your gaze away from. You don’t want to tackle it , because deep down you rather like it. But you know it’s not right; you know it needs to be dealt with. Can you hear the voice of God encouraging you to take that step, to put this little spot in sharp focus and to make it the one thing you choose to eradicate in your life? It’ll take time; it’ll need God’s grace. But help is at hand! John the Baptist called us to repent – Jesus came with a baptism in the Holy Spirit, an offer of God’s power working within us to transform us into saints. If you’ve received the Sacrament of Confirmation, you have already been sealed with the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit’s power is tied until you give him permission to transform you into a saint! 

When you know the spot you’re going to work at removing, pray for God’s help – call upon the Holy Spirit! You could say something like this: “Lord, I’m very sorry for this pattern in my life; I renounce it; I wish to be totally free of all its influence. Grant me the grace to break the bonds of sin and be filled with your presence and power.”

Once you’ve prayed, you need to do something, too. You might need to make this your New Years Resolution, or even ask someone you trust to hold you accountable. If you even manage to remove just one small spot from your life in the next few months, you’ll have taken one step towards living that life without spot or blemish to which God invites us all. It’s not easy – we can’t deal with all our faults at once. But we have to start somewhere, and there’s no excuse for not trying.

Our Blessed Mother was totally filled with the Holy Spirit, her great partner in living a life free from all sin. By the prayers of the Spotless One, may we too receive grace to overcome our failings and purify our souls, so that we may be ready for the Lord’s coming. O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.

The Now and Future Presence

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

I’d like to begin by sharing with you a very old joke – a story from the Star Wars universe. I’d already planned to tell you this today, but it takes on a special poignancy because of the news this morning of the death of Dave Prowse, the actor who played Darth Vader, as well as being Britain’s most famous road safety advocate.

In the world of Star Wars, the agents of dark and of light are bound together by a mysterious Force. The dark lord, Darth Vader opens a channel to his arch nemesis and broadcasts a message. “Luke Skywalker! I know what you’re having for Christmas!” He pauses, but there is only radio silence.

He tries again: “Luke Skywalker! I know what you’re having for Christmas!” This time the viewscreen flicks on and a very annoyed Luke Skywalker appears, but says nothing.

A third time Darth Vader declares: “Luke Skywalker! I know what you’re having for Christmas!” And this time, Luke cracks.

“Darth Vader,” he says, “how can you possibly know what I’m having for Christmas?”

Darth Vader looks directly at the scanner and says: “Luke Skywalker! I felt your presents!”

Christmas presents are a promise, now, of joy yet to come. Their size, their shape, even their feel might suggest some idea of the gifts we’re waiting to discover. But until we take the wrapping off, we can never be entirely sure.

By faith, we know that the best is yet to come. Every Sunday, in our creed, we profess that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. God promises us an eternal kingdom with no more pain, no more suffering, no more tears and no more plague. This is not just the promise of heaven; this is a promise that God will make a new Earth where those have died and gone to heaven will be raised up in imperishable bodies. This is our Christian hope: not pie in the sky when we die, but mirth through rebirth on new Earth! What awaits us is a glorious life – in the body, not just in the spirit – with Jesus and with all those who have ever loved him.

And so here and now at the end of this November we find ourselves in a time of waiting; a time marked by promises so close that we can feel their outline, but where the joy is yet to be fulfilled.

We have the promise of Christmas; this year, the gifts might arrive in the post rather than in the hands of our loved ones. But we will keep the same discipline of waiting until the day of unwrapping, playing guessing games about what they may contain. To open one’s presents before Christmas would be to spoil the joy of the long-awaited moment.

We have the promise of a vaccine which will bring us the long-awaited day when we can embrace and draw close to one another again. But we must first pass through the tunnel of this winter before we reach the light of spring, taking care to keep our distance as we await the time of renewed closeness.

We have the promise of Christ’s second coming. And yet we can already feel his presence. St Paul writes of how the Gifts of the Spirit are poured out in their fullness. What we want is to be with Jesus in the Kingdom where tears, pain and suffering are things of the past. But what we’re offered are those hints of the presence of the Lord, which we can feel even though they are not yet fully unwrapped. We can feel his presence through his Holy Spirit living within us. The same spirit which enabled Jesus to work miracles lives in you and me; and when we learn to yield to the Holy Spirit miracles can be worked through us. If you’ve ever been to an Alpha Course or a Renewal Prayer Group you may have personal experience of this; if not, I strongly recommend you find an Alpha or similar course starting in the New Year – for even receiving prayer online, it’s possible to encounter the presence of the Lord in a new way.

The prophet Isaiah knows that God has the power to rescue us; and yet we are not always rescued from the trials of human life. Isaiah cries out, “If only you’d come with your presence – the very mountains would melt!” But it’s not God’s perfect plan for us to unwrap his presence yet; we are asked to be content with the subtle signs of his Holy Spirit living within us. As we wait, we must ask God for strength; you might wish to take as your own the words of a song we’ll use later in this Mass:

Steady heart that keeps on going / steady love that keeps on holding / lead me on. / Steady grace that keeps forgiving / steady faith that keeps believing / lead me on.

Steffany Gretzinger & Amanda Lindsey Cook

The song begins by saying “I can’t see what’s in front of me” but ends with the promise that we will run together with God. So what I have to offer you this day is not a new hope, but a hope we have known about for 2000 years. For us as Christians, hope is the certain knowledge of things to come, the knowledge that Christ will come again, the knowledge that this world with all its brokenness will come to an end. Just stay awake! Get ready! For you do not know the day or the hour when the Lord will invite you into the fullness of his kingdom.

It may come through the end of the world as we know it; more likely, as for 20 centuries of Christians, the Kingdom will come to us fully at the end of our human life on earth. Admission to God’s New Earth its not automatic; it does depend on us putting our trust in Jesus here now. And although we do not see him, it’s not hard to feel at least some signs of his presence, because we are not be without the gifts of the Spirit even while waiting for Jesus to be revealed! So come, Lord Jesus, come as by a new Christmas – I sense your presence!

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Servants of the King

Homily to members of Sion Community and LiveStream Viewers on the Solemnity of Christ the King, Year A. (National Youth Sunday)

Commander William Riker definitely wanted an adventure – if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have joined Starfleet. Through seven series of Star Trek – The Next Generation, he repeatedly refused promotion, being content to be the second-in-command of the Starship Enterprise under Captain Picard.

Samwise Gamgee definitely didn’t want an adventure. Hobbits don’t do adventures – they stay at home in their comfortable burrows. But as gardener to Frodo Baggins, when his master set out to destroy the Ring of Power, Sam felt obliged to go with him. On the one occasion when Sam was required to carry the Ring himself, he gave it back to Frodo as quickly as he could.

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What Commander Riker and Sam have in common is that they knew who they served, and they were each willing to serve their master because they saw the good values their master stood for. And both of these stories are love stories – not of romantic attraction, but of the kind of love which is willing to lay down one’s life in service of another.

In Star Trek, as in many similar stories of military organisations, the honour code demands that ‘no-one is left behind’. Team members constantly put their lives on the line for one another, and somehow, everyone is rescued to dare another day. But sometimes there are casualties – and if a major character is killed off, fans will cry, because they recognise the beauty of someone who has risked their life for their shipmates so often. There would be no tears and no drama if the crew of the USS Enterprise never explored dangerous places.

Friends, we too find ourselves in the middle of a great adventure. Maybe you’re as daring as Commander Riker; more likely you’re with Sam Gamgee. You didn’t ask to be caught up in a quest to destroy the power of the thing that threatens our freedom. But adventure has come a-calling and now we are stuck within the plot.

This week, we rejoice in good news. An end to our quest is in sight! With news of effective vaccines, there is light at the end of the tunnel – but there are still months of darkness ahead. Every day, we face dangers. Each time we go shopping or head off to work, we might ask ourselves: is today the day I will bring an unwelcome visitor to my home? Have I done everything I can do to protect myself and the people I meet? Or if I’m so vulnerable that I can’t go out and do those things, then perhaps I face the dangers of isolation. One of our young people who contributed to our bidding prayers today reminds us that even ‘home’ is not a comfortable place for everybody.

It’s difficult to rejoice that Christ is King when these things loom large in our minds. In our prayers, we might even turn to Jesus and ask, “How could it happen?” – but as we look upon our Crucified King, the ‘it’ ceases to be our current crisis and becomes his Passion for us.

And Jesus will say, “I only do my Father’s will.”

And then if you ask God, “Why did you allow this terrible thing?” we will have no answer better than that of Fr Romano Guardini, who would shrug his shoulders and say, “Love does such things. Only love does such things.”

Or we might heed Simone Weil, the French philosopher who was drawn to Christ yet who hesitated to become a Christian: “When I look up onto the bloody cross and see him bleeding and dying for me, I say to myself, ‘Now he understands.’”

What does Our Lord understand? That people are suffering on earth, for so many different reasons? Yes. And what can the Lord do about this?

He can send us! We are his only body on earth. We, therefore, are called to be Christ’s love in the world. Like the crew of the Enterprise, like the Fellowship of the Ring, we are the hands to feed the hungry, the smile to visit the imprisoned, the ones to bring justice to the downtrodden. We first rescue our companions when they are in peril, and then we work together for the good of others. In this way we imitate Christ who laid his life down only for one reason: out of love. Our God only knows how to love by giving, by self-sacrifice.

And God has promised us one thing: “I cannot tell you how long it will take. I cannot give you any hope except one: I will be with you all days, even to the end of the world. I have created you for greatness and great you shall be. I have created you to use your time and attention to learn how to love, because in the learning how to love, you are healed and you are saved.”

If Christ is Our King, we must live by his standards. We do not seek to replace him. We know that he will return one day to shepherd his sheep himself. We know he does provide seasons of rest for us, when we will lie by still waters. But we also know that he, the Servant King, expects us to serve others in the meantime. When Riker has a mission, he must fulfil it. When Sam becomes the Ring Bearer, he must press on towards Mount Doom. When we meet someone hungry or thirsty, friendless or forlorn, our path is clear. My mission is to love, here and now, the people around me, and with them, to serve others as best we can. Long live the King.

Much of today’s sermon is inspired by a homily on the same feast by Fr Hanly.