Call Me

Homily for Come All Who Thirst, for Members of Sion Community and Livestream Participants for the Saturday before Pentecost, 2020.

St John’s Gospel was written in Greek, a language which has several different words for ‘love’ – and two different words were used in this passage. We can miss what’s going on when we rely on our English translation, so let’s hear that again, with a possible interpretation. 

Jesus said to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me enough to die for me?”

Peter replied: “Yes, Lord; You know that I’m your friend.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed My lambs;” and then Jesus asked him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me enough to die for me?”

Peter replied: “Yes, Lord; You know that I’m your friend.”

Jesus said to him, “Look after My sheep.” Then Jesus said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, are you truly my friend?”

Peter was grieved that Jesus asked him this third time, “Are you truly my friend?” and replied, “Lord, You know everything; You know that I’m your friend.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep.”

Jesus then said to him, in his most serious tone:

‘When you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.’

In these words he indicated the kind of death by which Peter would give glory to God. After this he said, ‘Follow me.’

They say that if an offer seems too good to be true, it probably is. If someone is offering you a free gift, you might instinctively ask, “What’s the catch?”

This weekend is all about a free gift. The title, “Come All Who Thirst” is taken from the prophet Isaiah, who called upon people with no money to come and buy wine and milk – but to buy them for what he called “not-money”.

The story of Jesus is the story of a man who said “Follow me, and you will enjoy eternal life!” He preached the forgiveness of sins – whatever you have done wrong in your life, say sorry and you can start again! He didn’t want anything in return – except our loyalty. In other words, our entire life!

St Paul didn’t believe Jesus was a messenger from God until he had a dramatic, powerful encounter with the risen Jesus on the Road to Damascus. That was enough to cause him to reverse the entire course of his life and become a preacher for Jesus. Friends and prophets warned him not to visit Jerusalem, but he went anyway, and to no-one’s surprise, was arrested by the skeptical Jewish leaders and handed over to the Roman Governor. Paul chose to gain attention for his message by making a dramatic appeal to Caesar, the Roman Emperor. If he hadn’t, he might have been released quietly – but to find out what actually happened, tune in to tomorrow’s Mass!

St Peter, by contrast, had failed to stand up for Jesus in public once, and faced the embarrassing but tender moment we’ve just seen when Jesus restored his dignity. There’s a legend that when Peter was later living in Rome, he tried to escape from the city but met Jesus walking the other way. “Where are you going, Lord?” – “Into the city to be crucified again.” According to the legend, St Peter turned round and the Lord disappeared. Or maybe the real Peter had already learned his lesson, and didn’t run away that time.

Both Peter and Paul ultimately found the strength to stand up for Jesus. Both of them accepted the deal Jesus offered: Give me your life on earth, and I will give you heaven. Both of them tasted the living water that Jesus promised, the power of the Holy Spirit – both of them were able to let God’s power flow through them to heal the sick and raise the dead.

Giving our life to Jesus doesn’t mean we have to abandon our families or join an order of monks, nuns or missionaries. It does mean we look again at our values, we place God at the centre of our life, and put the needs of our neighbours before our own. We don’t have to wait for someone to put a belt around us – we can surrender our hands into the service of others by our own free will.

This weekend is an invitation to take a risk. Come close to Jesus. Believe that he really offers a free gift worth having. We do need help and support on our journey, but Jesus offers us his Holy Spirit who comes to bring us gifts, and courage.  I’ll be saying more about what it means to do this at this evening’s mission event. Jesus asks: Do you thirst for me? Do you thirst for a life with God which will never end? Come, All Who Thirst, and follow me!

The Challenge to Change

Homily at the Sion Community Family Day for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2019.

Today, I want to talk about someone whose lifestyle seems a bit extreme, and whose message makes us feel uncomfortable. Someone we might admire from a distance but might not want to get too close to. Someone people in authority either criticise, or want to be seen alongside.

I’m talking, of course, about Greta Thunberg.

In case you need a reminder, she’s a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who’s become the figurehead of the climate strike movement – older school pupils protesting that politicians and responsible adults need to act quickly for the good of our planet. Because of her deeply-held principles she is a vegan and refuses to travel by highly-polluting vehicles like aeroplanes or ocean-going ferries. This became a problem when she was invited to address the United Nations in New York, until the crew of a yacht volunteered to sail her across the Atlantic. She’s just arrived in Spain, after another yacht trip – a climate conference which was supposed to be in Chile was moved to Europe at short notice!

Someone like Greta Thunberg provokes strong reactions, but different people react in different ways.

“You’re just wrong.” Does Greta really understand what’s going on with our planet? Some say there’s simply not enough evidence for climate change driven by human use of coal, oil and gas. As a scientist, I know that with something as complex as the climate, we might never be able to prove that our actions are responsible beyond reasonable doubt – but I think we can say that on the balance of probabilities, if we go on as we are, our only planet will be in big trouble during my lifetime. 

“I don’t want to admit you’re right.” That’s called denial. If Greta is right, we all need to make significant lifestyle changes, eating less meat, consuming less energy, living a more simple life. These things aren’t easy. And when someone’s asking you to do something difficult, it’s a natural reaction to attack the messenger. For instance, although Greta has crossed the Atlantic twice now by wind-power alone, some of the crew members of her yachts, there and back, had to fly into position to make it possible. Is that ideal? No, but there isn’t a scheduled yacht service offering regular carbon-free ocean crossings. It’s easy to criticise – but if that’s just a way of avoiding the real issue, don’t!

“I admire you.” It’s easy – indeed, many people would say it’s fashionable – to jump on Greta’s bandwagon. It’s easy to re-tweet her messages and even turn out on a climate protest waving placards. But we can fall into the trap of saying it’s somebody else’s problem. Yes, we’d like our politicians to ‘do something about it’. And there are some things they can do. They can spend our tax money on research into green energy and building more wind turbines, tidal lagoons and solar farms. They can regulate waste so that we recycle more and buy fewer carrier bags or disposable cups. These things will help in the long term. But beyond that, what do we expect our politicians to do? They could pass laws rationing our meat supply, and cutting off our electricity for 8 hours a day. Would we vote for that?

“I’m with you.” Ultimately, Greta will only be successful if she persuades us to make big changes in our lifestyle. Greta’s own mother, an international opera singer, sacrificed her lifestyle – no more flying – when her daughter asked, “Why are you stealing my future?” The Bishop of Salford, John Arnold, has just made a video where he talks about his own lifestyle changes: Don’t fly unless it’s unavoidable. Share lifts and use public transport when possible. Turn off electrical items which are on standby. Turn the temperature down and wear an extra layer! CAFOD (and Pope Francis) would add that we should shop for food grown locally; reduce – reuse – recycle; and simply avoid buying things we don’t need!

Greta Thunberg isn’t the only possible answer to my question. St John the Baptist fits the bill as well. Greta’s message is “Change your behaviour! The climate catastrophe is close at hand!” – and John the Baptist came declaring “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand!” Both of them are iconic campaigners for change – and both are wonderfully vague about what kind of change they actually want to see in our lives.

We can react to John the Baptist – and to the message of Jesus, which is what he’s all about – in exactly the same way people react to Greta. Some refuse to accept that Christian moral values have any relevance except for Christians who want to live by them. Others might point to the failings of the Church as an institution, or of individual Christians, to say that they’re off the hook. We might renew our Baptismal Promises and say we’re going to live like Christians, but then not think about what that means in practice. Or we could surrender and simply say to God: “Here I am! What change do you want in my life today?”

Advent isn’t Lent. Lent is all about identifying sin in our lives, as a preparation for the wonderful Easter gift of forgiveness. Advent’s something else. Perhaps Advent is the season which challenges us to ask not “What am I doing wrong?” but “What could I do better?” – after all, its climax is Christmas, the season of gift-giving and goodwill to all people. “Repent” doesn’t just mean “Stop sinning.” It also means “Turn your life around. Total change!” Isaiah presents us with images of the perfect Servant of God and of harmony in creation. St Paul’s letter to the Romans asks us to “think with one mind”. And since we’ve come together for a Family Day, let’s do just that.

Greta’s family decided together to make certain lifestyle changes. Jesus called a band of disciples together to learn to be his followers. In our families, and in our Sion Community houses, we can help each other, and hold each other accountable to the standards we know we ought to keep. So right now I’m going to pass everyone a slip of paper to write down at least one thing you could do. It doesn’t have to be about the environment – Jesus calls us to other good works, too! I’m going to give you some headings on the screen to help you think:

  • How could you pray together as a family?
  • What could you do to show appreciation for one another within your household?
  • How could you read the Bible together or study something about our Faith?
  • What could you do to bless your neighbour – and by that I mean someone you naturally come into contact with regularly, it doesn’t have to be the family next door.
  • What could you do to live a greener lifestyle?
  • Which good causes might you support financially next year?

I’m going to give you a few minutes now to think and pray about one thing you could start doing, either tomorrow or after Christmas. When you’ve written something on your sheet, I want you to give it to another member of your family or Sion Community household. Later today, or when you get home, compare your notes. Is there something positive we can help each other to do? As the saying goes: “We must all hang together, or we will all hang separately!” St John the Baptist warned us that we must change our behaviour because God’s Kingdom is close – a promise that we can make earth a little more like heaven, and a warning that God will be checking up on us soon!

The Things We Haven’t Done

Homily at 3 Churches, for the 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

One morning, at the start of class, a schoolgirl spoke to her teacher.

Please Sir, can I ask you something? Should a person be punished for something they haven’t done?

“Of course not,” replied the teacher, “No-one should be punished for something they haven’t done.”

“That’s good!” said the girl. “Please Sir, I haven’t done my homework!”

Today’s Gospel starts with a lovely picture of Jesus serving his friends. But then St Peter asks “is this for us or for everyone?” He’s probably not expecting what happens next – Jesus paints a surprising picture of how God treats his “servants”. For those who claim to be disciples, a higher standard is expected. The wicked servant who abuses his master’s trust is dismissed – that’s an image of Hell. The lazy servant who did know what the master expected receives many strokes of the lash – that’s an image of Purgatory. More surprisingly, the one who didn’t know what the master expected, but failed to deliver, is punished. Only lightly, but still punished – by the master who represents God!

Does this mean we’re dealing with an unreasonable God who expects results and deals with us unjustly? No. But there are two things we must remember to avoid reading this parable the wrong way.

The first thing is that the servants were servants. They knew they had a Master. So they knew that something was going be expected of them. The fault of the third servant is that he didn’t try to find out what he should have been doing. This is not a parable for people who’ve never heard of Jesus. This is a parable for disciples – members of the Church who claim they want to follow Jesus and serve God Our Father!

The second important thing is that while human beings judge the outward appearance, God judges the heart. We are judged not on our results but on our choices. Let me offer an example: we know that one of the Ten Commandments requires us to keep the Lord’s Day holy. Mother Church takes that and makes an Obligation, saying we must attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, on pain of serious sin. Now, suppose you wake up on Sunday morning and have flu – or find yourself in sole care of a child who is ill in bed. You want to go to Mass. You feel bad about not being able to go to Mass. In these circumstances, is it possible for you to choose to come to Mass? No. So if that happens, please don’t come to confession because you feel bad about not coming to Mass. Confession is about saying “I made a bad choice and next time that happens I’ll make a better choice” – we call that ‘a firm purpose of amendment’. The sign you need to come to confession is that you can put into words what that better choice would have been. If your body has flu, you have no choice. If you have to care for a sick child at home, you have no choice. When you have no choice, what you have are regrets, not sins. So take your sins to confession but take your regrets straight to God in prayer.

At the end of our lives, we will meet Jesus as our judge. We will see clearly what was expected of us. I suspect that what the Bible calls the “punishment” for the servant who didn’t know what was expected will be the firey embarrassment we experience at realising we have let down our beloved Lord in the task he has chosen specially for each one of us. It’s because of this that we have the practice in the church called an “examination of conscience”. This is when we look at ourselves and ask whether we’ve been doing what our master expects. Now it’s easy to make a list of bad behaviour we should avoid – we can tick off a list of “Thou Shalt Nots” to help with that. Today’s Gospel, however, requires something more challenging: an examination of the good deeds which our Master does expect.

Now, none of us can do everything. We can’t all run a Foodbank, visit 50 housebound parishioners every week, take charge of a pack of Scouts, work overtime so a colleague can get home to the kids and spend 8 nights a week at home with our beloved husband or wife. So it’s important to spend time praying about what good deeds God expects each one of us to do. The key is in the gifts and talents God has already entrusted to us – they are given to us to make the world a better place. We will be most effective when we do those things we are called and gifted to do. This is why, following our big diocesan conference in June, our priests and lay leaders in the diocese are examining a process named “Called and Gifted” which could help us do just this. But it would be premature of me to say more before final plans are made.

At this time of year, as we look forward to the “back to school” season, those of us who are parents or grandparents might face a change in mix of caring duties and gaps in our schedule in a typical week. It’s a good time to ask where we can use of our gifts and talents in the year to come.

There is one thing that only we can do – we who worship in the Catholic Church in this place. We are ambassadors for Christ. We can’t expect anyone else promote this parish. It is our calling to invite the people we meet to ask whether they believe Jesus rose from the dead, and whether it’s possible to meet Jesus through Holy Mass. Today’s Second Reading reminds us that Abraham set out to follow God’s call. The First Reading recalls the first Passover, when the faithful Jews were saved from the angel of death. God protects his faithful people, but expects much from his servants – and it’s our business to find out what God wants us to do.

None of us can do everything, but all of us are expected to use the gifts we’ve been given to do something. The Master is calling us. If we want our entry into heaven to be pure joy and free from punishment, the first step is to pray this Dangerous Prayer – “Here I am Lord, use me as you will!” Remember, he doesn’t want to punish you – but you do have to do your homework!

Missiondom Tour 2019

Sherry Weddell made a speaking tour of England & Wales 10-20 June 2019. This is a brief digest of the teaching, which presupposes you are familiar with Sherry Weddell’s book Forming Intentional Disciples. The book sets out a framework for understanding how believers pass through the thresholds of (1) Trust, (2) passive Curiosity, (3) Openness to change, (4) active Seeking and (5) Intentional Discipleship.

The State of the Church Today

We no longer live in a culture of “Christendom”. Even the young people born in “Catholic” families are mostly growing up with such a weak exposure to Catholicism they are effectively unchurched rather than lapsed. And in fact it’s historically rare for Catholics to have been formed by the culture (“Christendom”) rather than to have to be evangelised anew. “Generation Z” – the young people born between 1998 and 2016 – typically don’t believe in God, never pray, and don’t attend any kind of worship service. The 2015 “Talking Jesus” survey in England showed that 53% of adults don’t believe in the Resurrection of Jesus and only 21% do believe he was God in human form. On the other hand, the number of adults who call themselves atheists have dropped from 38% in 2016 to 33% in 2018 (Yougov survey 2018).

In a typical parish, we can expect 90-95% of the worshipping parishioners have not moved beyond Trust or passive Curiosity. Even highly engaged (“core”) parishioners who get involved with parish projects are often engaging out of a sense of commitment to the local community or the church institution rather than commitment to Christ. All disciples are highly engaged, but engagement does not prove discipleship. Worse, it’s very likely that someone who has been engaged for a long time but never moved beyond curiosity has become ‘stuck’ in their spiritual journey; and those who are still at early thresholds may become annoyed and vocal when their parish is challenged to grow deeper. What’s the typical mentality of a Massgoer? “We’re all going to heaven because we’re good people, but none of us are going to be ‘saints’ because it would be far too proud to aspire to that.” This shows a total misunderstanding of salvation!

So we recognise there are three distinct journeys which people can make which don’t synchronise with each other automatically: progress through the sacraments of initiation, active involvement in the church community, and the interior journey through the thresholds of discipleship. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognises that there is the “first conversion” (1427) by which we become disciples and then the ongoing or “second” conversion (1428) which takes place once we are disciples and find our apostolate (the “missionary discipleship” which Pope Francis speaks of). The Church recognises (Catechesi Tradendae 19) that when we set out to catechise people we have to face the reality that many have not yet been evangelised.

We have a retention problem. We know that we haemorrhage young people after baptism and first communion. Even many of those who join the church through RCIA cease practicing in the year following their baptism or reception. Why do the sacraments not bear fruit? Catechism 1131 reminds us that the sacraments bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions. This teaching is expanded in Chapter 6 of Trent’s Decree on Justification and reinforced by St Thomas Aquinas (Commentary on John 6:976 & Summa Theologica III q69 a8).

A Canadian study of young Christians who stay (Hemmorhaging Faith 2012) indicates that young people who remain active in church have experienced God’s presence and seen prayers answered; live in Christian communities where they feel able to wrestle with real spiritual questions including the Gospel story; and have lived experience of adult communities living out Christian faith in authentic ways.

The Work of Proclamation

We pour great efforts into catechising children and adults. But before we can do that fruitfully, we have to foster openness and then proclaim the Gospel.

A key task of clergy (an aspect of the ministry of ‘governance’ alongside the Word and the Sacraments), is to raise up “intentional disciples” in our parishes – souls who are confident in their identity as followers of Jesus Christ. Most of the clerical work will be engaging with the “near field” of churchgoers, while giving the laity the tools they need to engage with the “far field” of those who have left church or never engaged with church in the first place.

For many of our churchgoers, their “relationship with the church”, or even their “relationship with a deceased relative” IS their relationship with God. They can be helped by hearing testimonies from people who do have a relationship with God, and being encouraged to pray the Prayer of Openness – “God, if you are there, show yourself to me!”

How do we share the basic Gospel message? Gen Z young adults are so disconnected from our Christian heritage that even Alpha may make too many assumptions about their cultural background! But they do believe they are in charge of their own lives, at least until they meet with some disaster! (In the light of Sherry’s teaching and suggested resources, I have updated my Guide for Evangelisers.)

One cycle of Alpha or Discovering Christ is probably not enough to move a participant from Trust to Intentional Discipleship. But sustained work with a person can achieve this in around two years. When people reach the stage of Openness, supporting them with prayer is crucial; and we must recognise they are vulnerable to falling back, or hiding within a community which doesn’t seem to affirm their growth. Growing as far as Openness can be scary in a community which is mostly still at Trust!

When someone is ready, an exercise like one-on-one renewal of baptismal promises or the physical symbolic action of dropping a net can be helpful.

Disciples bear fruit – and this grows out of a living relationship with God. When members of the church become intentional disciples, they become active as worshippers and volunteers, and generous givers. Some will become lay leaders pioneering new ministries. Programmes such as the Siena Institute’s Called & Gifted allow the gifts (charisms) of disciples to be discerned and affirmed. From July 2019, the teaching element of this programme will be accessible via online videos.

You can only guide others to grow as far as the threshold you have reached yourself. People who are still at Trust do have a role in evangelisation teams – they might be the most sensitive to hospitality issues, for instance, and have a role in the welcoming team. But they are not disciplers.

“Charismatic Renewal” fits within the wider picture of what Sherry teaches about. She speaks of how to encourage people to develop a conscious relationship with God. For some souls, this may crystallise in a “baptism in the Spirit” experience but others who have clearly moved into relationship with God would not choose to use that language or identify a particular experience. Similarly, the charisms identified though Called & Gifted do include extraordinary gifts such as healing or praying in tongues, but also include lifestyle charisms (e.g. celibacy, voluntary poverty) and charisms where God has simply perfected natural gifts (e.g. music, writing, administration).

There are five specific practical steps we can take to become more effective at making disciples.

  1. In pastoral conversations, be attentive to the person’s relationship with God.

Whenever you engage in an appropriate conversation, try to tease out what the person’s understanding is of “God” – even if they’ve been to a Catholic school, that’s no guarantee. For many, “God” is just a label for “church stuff”. It’s easy for a member of a group to ignore information which has been “broadcast” to the whole audience. A one-to-one conversation forces the listener to engage – and often that engagement is enough to get the person thinking afresh about who God really is. Two key questions to ask are:

  • “Tell me the story of where God is in your life!” (or, for someone who has shared a messy life situation, “Where is God in this for you?”)
  • “If you could ask God one question which he would answer for you right now, what would it be?”

Such “threshold conversations” can be very revealing about where a person is at, and can themselves provoke the kind of reflection that helps a person pass through towards the next threshold. Parishioners who wish to learn how to have these kinds of conversations can benefit from Ananias Training. Good listening does not seek to force the speaker into a conclusion but listens without judgment. Recent research from Barna (Reviving Evangelism, 2019) shows that the more a person experiences positive conversations about faith, the more open they will be to talking about faith.

Never accept a “label” without enquiring what it means. Even people who initially call themselves atheist or agnostic might admit to praying or being open to the possibility of some version of God! Try answering questions with questions – most people are only two “whys” from being forced to think about why they stand where they stand.

  1. Encourage people to foster their relationship with God.

Ultimately, by talking about the possibility of a relationship with God, you are fostering the understanding that God is a loving person and it is possible to have a relationship with God.

You can also encourage people to be open to a relationship with God by:

  • Praying the Prayer of Openness – “God, if you are there, show yourself to me!”
  • Trying lectio divina.
  • Trying Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (but offer a simple orientation to someone who isn’t familiar with it).
  • Seeking the presence of God in serving those in need.
  • Practicing the “Presence of God” (Brother Lawrence)
  • Talking to God in your own words.

The Siena Institute has a lectio resource for Advent 2019 available.

  1. Create a culture in your parish where it is normal to talk about Jesus.

Research shows that most people have to hear the story of who Jesus is and what He did for us many times before they realise how important this is. This can be communicated through preaching, through personal testimonies shared at the end of Mass, and through testimonies and lectio divina (with participants sharing their reflections with each other) becoming a normal part of all group activities (committees, catechetical groups, etc.) in your parish. The purpose is not only to receive the reflections shared during lectio but to embed the culture of it being normal to speak about prayer, faith and Jesus Christ.

Keep telling the story of the saving death of Jesus, alongside personal testimony of how Jesus touches lives today and draws people into relationship with himself. These don’t have to be extraordinary “Damascus Road” testimonies – rather, they should illustrate what it’s like to have an ordinary prayer life. Also remind people that He lives in the Tabernacle of every Catholic Church! And keep sharing the Great Story and personal testimonies wherever there’s an opportunity – videos on the parish website, in one-to-one conversations, at children’s and adult groups – in short, at every possible opportunity.

You can also consider running one of several courses in your parish which provide a basic introduction to the person of Jesus. In the light of Sherry’s teaching and suggested resources, I have updated my Guide for Evangelisers. Remember that one size will not fit all parishioners, and a diverse range of methods of presenting the Gospel will be best.

  1. Ensure there is intercessory prayer for the flourishing of your parish.

Intercession is not the same thing as adoration – although it can be done in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed. You will probably have a handful of parishioners who have a particular gift for intercession – when they start to pray, a topic will come clearly to mind, or they will have a clear idea on how to pray at length about a topic you propose. How will you identify these people? If you schedule a special time of prayer to pray for the needs of the parish, they will be the main people who turn up. Develop them as a group of intercessors – and importantly, when you see answers to their prayers, feed this back to encourage them. You can also use those whose life-circumstances mean that prayer is their only way to contribute (your sick and housebound) – but don’t neglect the healthy parishioners who have a special gift for praying in this way!

  1. Identify and use the charisms of every member of your parish.

Parishioners will be happy and fulfilled when they are using the gifts God has given them to further the work of the Church – though they may need reassurance that Christian humility doesn’t require us to shun tasks we get praised for! Sherry’s organisation offers a Called & Gifted programme which helps people to identify their God-given gifts (charisms), and this can be accessed in three ways:

  • An individual goes through the process on-line;
  • A parish streams the teaching videos;
  • A parish runs live talks.

When the programme is to be run at parish level, the parish will first need to train some suitable people who will conduct the one-to-one interviews with participants. These interviews include threshold conversations which help identify how far parishioners have grown along the path to discipleship.

Final Thoughts

We need hope. Do we expect that people will become committed disciples? Do we write off good news stories as “American cheerfulness” or the fruit of “North American resources”? One US parish which worked hard on promoting discipleship now has 40% of its Massgoers in ministry, estimates 25% are now Intentional Disciples, and its level of financial giving has gone through the roof. There is no reason to believe this cannot happen in the UK!

You can join the international Forming Intentional Disciples Forum on Facebook which can be searched for all sorts of useful conversation threads on evangelising in different circumstances.

There is also a UK Forum, but this is much less active.

For the avoidance of doubt, the article above is not Sherry’s words but my digest of them. Fr Gareth Leyshon (CatholicPreacher)

D Day

Homily at the Sion Community D-Weekend for Pentecost Sunday, 2019.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? They would need to be brave and courageous…

This week, many nations have been remembering the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. “D” stood for Decision – the Decision to send a mighty army through the beaches of France to overthrow the Nazi evil which had overtaken the heart of Europe. Most of the warriors who took part were young people – some hiding their true age so they could fight, though not yet deemed ‘adults’. Not only men died that day – women among the nursing corps also lost their lives. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to do it – the moral case to oppose the Nazis was overwhelming.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – within a month, a million allied warriors had landed in Normandy.
  3. They received signs of encouragement, from the words of Winston Churchill to the outrageous leadership of a bagpiper!

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal…

On the Day of Pentecost around AD 33, a group of young people were waiting in an Upper Room, the same room where Jesus had celebrated the Last Supper. It’s probable that the fishermen called by Jesus – Peter, Andrew, James and John – were in their twenties or possibly even teenagers. In today’s Gospel, we heard how Jesus appeared to them on Easter Sunday, wished them peace, and commanded them to receive the Holy Spirit. St Luke tells us how, 40 days after Easter, Jesus said goodbye – he would no longer be appearing regularly to his chosen followers – but told them to wait in Jersualem until they received power from God. In our first reading, from Acts, we learn that after 9 days of continuous prayer, the promised power came in the form of a mighty wind and tongues of fire. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young disciples knew they HAD to do it – Jesus their master had given them a command.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – not only the eleven apostles chosen by Jesus, but Mary and the other women who supported them, and very soon, the hundreds who responded and became baptised.
  3. They received signs of encouragement, because God’s power brought healings and words which touched lives.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? They would need to be brave and courageous…

Joshua’s army had been given its instructions. For seven days they were to march around Jericho; on the seventh day they should march seven times with the Ark of God’s Presence and then have their priests blow trumpets. No doubt the warriors and bearers of the Ark would have been young people. Joshua wasn’t so young any more, but God had chosen him because when he was a young man, sent to spy in the Promised Land, he had told Moses that although the land was full of formidable enemies, it would be easy to conquer with God’s help. Where most of the spies saw human problems, Joshua saw God’s solutions. Since then, he’d had to wait 40 years to see the children of Israel enter the Promised Land. But now it was time. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to do it – God’s power had led them to this moment.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – they were twelve tribes.
  3. They received signs of encouragement: Joshua had seen God’s power part the Egyptian Sea and the Jordan River, provide manna from heaven, and speak to Moses face-to-face.

The young people had been waiting. They couldn’t go until they got the signal…

On the Day of Pentecost in 2019, a group of young people were gathered in Brentwood. They had heard a message that “life with God is life in colour”. Some of them had personally experienced God touch their lives, with a deep peace that no human being can give. A few of them had even experienced what the Apostles had also known following the first Pentecost – they had prayed in tongues, received words of prophecy from God. But others among them doubted. And many wondered what their mission was to be.

For Joshua and for the D-Day troops, they had clear missions ahead of them. Joshua was to capture the city of Jericho and secure the Promised Land. The warriors of D-Day were to repel the Nazi troops and restore freedom to the nations of Europe. For the young people at the first Pentecost, their mission briefing was more general – they were to invite everyone in the world to become a follower of Jesus Christ – to become a Disciple.

Now what must you do to be a Disciple? We read in the same chapter of Acts that those who said “Yes” on the Day of Pentecost did four things. They were faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to meeting together to support one another, to Holy Communion and to prayer.

If you want to know the Teaching of the Apostles, you will need to read the whole New Testament of the Bible. But I can sum it up for you briefly. Deal with your anger and live in peace with one another. Protect and cherish human life from conception to natural death. Forgive everyone, even before they ask. Never sleep with another person until you are part of a marriage blessed by God. And never, ever, say something is a rule while doing the opposite.

This teaching will stir up questions in your hearts. Part of what Jesus taught is quite acceptable to the world around us. Who can argue with helping people in need and keeping our promises? But other things will be out of step with today’s world. Some of you will be thinking “Yes! It feels right to go to Mass on Sunday, protect human life in the womb, and wait until marriage, but I don’t quite understand why.” Ask the questions! It’s OK to want to know more, and a good place to start is a book called YouCat.

Others among you will feel angry at some of these ideas. Can’t the old-fashioned Catholic Church get with the times? Well, no, we can’t. Our job is to do what we’ve done for 2000 years, to pass on the teaching of Jesus – and Jesus doesn’t change his mind. But if you’re angry, good! Talk about it with someone. Maybe it’s because following Jesus means you’ll have to disagree with some members of your family or close friends. That’s why Jesus wants to fill us with His Holy Spirit, to be brave and courageous. But if you’re like the milkshake with the film on top*, you’re not going to be an awesome milkshake…

Maybe all of this feels too much for you. You can see that other people on the D-Weekend have had a good time or enjoy the singing and praying. So I say to you: don’t feel pressured into doing anything you don’t want to do. But do ask some basic questions. Do you believe that something dramatic happened on that first Day of Pentecost? That people who knew Jesus received power to heal people and change lives for the better? That Jesus, uniquely among religious leaders, rose from the dead? And do these questions matter?

On the Day of Pentecost in 2019, a group of young people were gathered in Brentwood. They had heard a message that “life with God is life in colour”. Some of them had personally experienced God touch their lives, with a deep peace that no human being can give. Three things stand out for me about what happened that day:

  1. The young people knew they HAD to take the next step – God was real, and was inviting them.
  2. They had the numbers to support each other – they were four tribes, able to keep in touch through Sion Community and through social media.
  3. They received signs of encouragement: some of the young people had spoken publicly about how God had touched their lives.

God had a purpose for each of these young people. They couldn’t go until they got the signal – and God will give that in different ways, to do different tasks, when each young person is ready. While they waited, it was easy to talk about what they were going to do. But when the time came to go out and change the world for the better, would they be up for the challenge? It was D-Day. Decision Day. Disciple Day. They would need to be brave and courageous… but like Joshua, like the Apostles, if they made the right decision, God’s Holy Spirit would be with them. I wonder what decision they are going to make?


*During the weekend, an illustration was used with three glasses of milk. Film on top (no baptism – no openness to the Holy Spirit) – no milkshake. Powder in but not stirred? (Just baptised and confirmed, not interested.) Lumpy milkshake. Powder in and stirred (stir up the gifts of the Spirit given to you) – awesome milkshake.

Photo credits: D-DayPentecostJoshua.

Fruitful Missionary Discipleship

Teaching given at the Sion Community, 26 & 27 May 2018

Parish Structures

To inspire a priest or member of a parish leadership team who is open to Alpha and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, offer a Summary of Divine Renovation.

To inspire a priest or member of a parish leadership team who is skeptical about Alpha or the gifts of the Holy Spirit, offer a Summary of Rebuilt.

Read more relevant links about parishes at The Five Pillars of Thriving Parishes and Building Missionary Parishes.

Evangelising Individuals

To inspire a layperson who’s not on a parish leadership team, or a priest who is particularly concerned with their one-to-one work evangelising parishioners, offer a Summary of Forming Intentional Disciples.

Read more, with useful links, at Help! I’m a Catholic who wants to evangelise! and Making Disciples.

Other Resources

The slides used at Sion are available as the original PowerPoint and as a PDF.

Some additional books you might read!

Video clips used are embedded below, apart from the “Blessed” First Communion resource. The “Evidence” clip is one of many brilliant films from Outside da Box; I also strongly recommend “Initiation“.

Building Missionary Parishes

The path of discipleship is one which individuals must walk from the first stirrings of curiosity about Jesus and his message, through to wholehearted committment. A parish neccessarily contains people at all stages of the journey. Indeed, a core function of a parish is to enable its members to make that journey, and to be equipped to invite other people to do so, too.

Some of the work which helps people make that journey is necessarily one-to-one work in the context of a relationship of trust. A parish needs to plan and provide for that to happen – but also needs a broader strategy about its corporate life. Elsewhere, I offer a resource page with useful links for materials which can help individuals and small groups grow through the different thresholds of discipleship. This web-page suggests what this might mean for the strategy of a parish as a whole.

PRE-DISCIPLESHIP

Not all church-goers are disciples. Indeed, based on Weddell and Kelly, a typical parish priest might safely assume that 90%-95% of his parishioners have not yet become disciples!

Those who passed through sacramental preparation as children may not yet have accepted the challenge to change; they may not be actively interested in finding out what Christ or the Church teaches.

If most parishes currently have 95% of their attendees in pre-discipleship, how should this shape the preaching and pastoral activity?

Most of the preaching should aim to do one or more of the following things:

  • Foster trust in Christ or His Church;
  • Tell the Great Story of Jesus in a way that arouses curiosity;
  • Speak openly about what the inner life of prayer is really like.

After some years of this it may be the right time to run a parish mission or similar programme which allows people to accept the Challenge to Change… but what should be done with those who accept the challenge? Weddell notes that the temptation is to train them for ministries, but in fact they will be hungry for catechesis, to understand their newly-awakened faith better.

When working with individuals, it is inadvisible to tackle moral issues which affect lifestyle until the person has accepted the challenge to be open to Christ and His message. But if the vast majority of Sunday churchgoers have not yet reached this threshold, what does this mean for preaching when moral topics arise naturally in the Lectionary? The preacher might choose to emphasise that following the Lord’s high standards is a natural thing to do for anyone who has already chosen to accept Jesus’ teaching, and remind the congregation that the Lord is always willing to forgive those who fall short and to offer grace, including through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, to those who wish to set their sights higher.

Any courses or study groups put on should be grounded in relationship with Christ. Many existing catechetical resoruces focus on content rather than relationship; and it is all too easy to deliver the content as a “lesson” rather than make it a true apprenticeship in which participants are actively reflecting on the implications for their lives.

A parish serious about being open to those on the threshold of exploring the Catholic faith will create an easy and welcoming atmosphere for those who drop in to test the water. They may offer a “seeker” experience – one successful model in cities is Nightfever. The Proclaim15 Resource Index is useful to help parishes develop a vision and strategy for evangelisation, or to focus on particular sectors such as youth, families, those with no church connection, or non-churchgoing Catholics (some of the original resources are now archived but the videos are still available on Vimeo). Southwark Archdiocese has produced an excellent Handbook to help parishes review parish provision and set up a parish team.

What about the 5%-10% who are already disciples? In a typical British parish that means there will be a core of 10-50 worshippers who will benefit from catechesis and discipling. If Sunday preaching is oriented to the 90+%, there will need to be another forum for the deepening work. This could be in the form of cell groups following the Guildford modelOrpington (Milan) model or Wimbledon (Florida) modelDivine Renovation tells of how a Canadian parish priest used the Alpha Course as a starting point to challenge his parishioners to become “engaged” in the mission of the Church.

Finally, remember the importance of intercession. Who in the parish is praying – and especially for those on the thresholds of openness or of discipleship, where much spiritual warfare takes place?

REACHING THE LAPSED

Rebuilt tells the story of a parish which made its primary strategy one of being intentionally welcoming to lapsed Catholics. Programmes to reach out to non-practising Catholics are of limited value unless the host church has made some adjustments in this way. If the church hasn’t changed, what is going to dissuade the returner from lapsing again?

A “threshold conversation” of the kind outlined in Forming Intentional Disciples can help highlight people’s disappointments and misunderstandings about God.

FORMING DISCIPLES AT THE CORPORATE LEVEL

Rebuilt explains how an American parish adopted a twofold mission: reaching the lost and growing disciples. Starting with 1500 worshippers, they grew to 4000 by gearing the welcome, music and preaching to their target audience – a 40something lapsed Catholic middle-class male. (Each parish will need to identify their own target based on local demographics, though husbands are more likely to bring their wives than vice versa.) By exhorting and enabling people to “get involved” they developed a culture where parishioners naturally gave of their time, talents and treasure; so resources do not need to be directed into running fundraisers or seeking reluctant volunteers to fill gaps.

Rick Warren’s book Purpose Driven Church observed that there were five distinct tasks every church community needs to undertake in order to be the full expression of Christ’s church on earth: Worship, Ministry (by which he meant social outreach, charitable work in the local community), Mission (his term for explicitly inviting others to become followers of Jesus), Fellowship (becoming part of the community of worshippers) and a fifth purpose of consciously seeking to grow as a follower of Jesus – Warren labelled this one “Discipleship” but since living out the other four purposes are also aspects of discipleship, a better Catholic label might be “Ongoing Formation”.

In a Catholic context, Divine Renovation tells how a Canadian parish priest, appointed pastor of a newly-merged parish of 1800 worshippers, applied the ideas from Rick Warren and set out a specific expectation that members of his parish would commit to five priorities: attending Sunday worship; volunteering for at least one parish project or ministry; networking with other Catholics; developing their prayer life and/or understanding of the Catholic faith; and giving financially to the parish. As a result, volunteering and financial giving has doubled, participation in courses has tripled, and more than 40% of parishioners are actively engaged with the life of the parish. The parish priest is now developing the best ways to draw in those who approach the Church seeking sacraments – ways which deeply challenge our current culture of applying the sacrament and waiting with forlorn hope for the grace to manifest!

There are many tools available to help members of a parish discern their gifts and strengths. Andy Raine’s Motivational Gifts helps Christians understand their motivation in terms of 7 Biblical headings. A more secular approach is found in Gallup’s engagement tools, including 34 Signature Themes from the Clifton Strengths approach, where you can buy access to an online assessment (top 5 or all 34). Sherry Weddell has long been associated with the Catherine of Siena Institute’s Called and Gifted programme, which does however need a trained facilitator. Wisdom on managing volunteers in parishes is also available.