Deaneries for Growth and Mission!

For the foreseeable future, the Catholic Church in England and Wales faces a double decline: in the number of priests available and in the number of active lay members. By global standards, we enjoy a high number of priests for every Catholic: according to current data (May 2017) we have 1.18 priests for every thousand Catholics, which ranks us 24th out of the 157 territories tabulated.

This doesn’t seem so bad, but we have a structural problem. The 1960s and 70s were marked by a surge in the number of men coming forward for the priesthood and a period of urban expansion in many British cities. (On the same statistical table we have 1.82 priests per parish, ranking us 88th in the world, but the statistics hide the ratio of “able” to “non-working” priests) The same period was also marked by the post-Vatican-II relaxations which allowed Sunday Mass on a Saturday evening, and only an hour’s fast before communion, making Sunday evening Masses viable.

We now find ourselves in a position where we have built an unsustainable network of small parishes with many Sunday* Masses. As the number of priests falls back to a more typical historical level, we cannot sustain all of these Masses (nor indeed the current pattern of daily Masses). Each scheduled Sunday Mass in a given location has its own “regulars”, not all of whom will transfer to another Mass if that slot is removed or merged. When a Mass venue is closed, even more regulars are likely to be lost. Many Catholics have a strong emotional attachment to the building they see as their “family church” and only a weak attachment to “the mission of the church” as a whole, so closing a building can have devastating consequences.

As the number of worshipping Catholics falls, coupled with demographic trends that mean more women are in employment, elderly people work to a greater age, and grandparents face increasing pressure to assist with child care, the volunteer force of lay people able to sustain parish activity is also being squeezed. Since each parish seeks to maintain a basic minimum level of service for the sacraments – baptism of infants, first communion, confirmation, adult instruction, care of the sick and housebound – the dwindling pool of volunteers will face increasing pressure to deliver these services at the expense of other tasks which are intrinsically important but more likely to be viewed as “optional” – adult religious education, evangelistic activities, dialogue with members of other faiths, and work with poor and needy members of the community.

In some places, team ministry has been tried. Anecdotal evidence suggests this only works effectively when a group of priests voluntarily comes together and embraces a deep level of co-operation; most diocesan priests work in a highly individualistic way. The promise of obedience is lived out mainly when the bishop gives a priest a new assignment, not in day-to-day matters; and without spare manpower, a bishop has few strategies with which to sanction an uncooperative priest. Few parishes have the benefit of a curate, so in most parishes one priest is responsible for everything. Cover priests are not easy to find, so priests may have difficulty taking their allowed holidays of one month per year, and without resident help, many priests may also struggle to preserve a meaningful day off.

Permanent deacons can assist with the load of baptisms, weddings and funerals, but problems can occur when a new parish priest moves into a parish with a deacon and for some reason fails to establish a good working relationship with that deacon. This may be due to personality clashes, or a lack of openness on the priest’s part to the ministry of deacons.

When one priest alone is responsible for a parish, carrying all the sick calls and funerals, this inevitably limits that priest’s capacity to be strategic and to offer more to the parish than the basics. Priests may also have diocesan responsibilities which further eat into their time. The famous Revd James Mallon, whose parish in Halifax, Canada, is a beacon of good parish ministry, is on record as saying he was only able to be strategic because he had an associate pastor carrying the load of funerals and sick visiting.

Bishops face structural problems of how to manage their dioceses with dwindling resources. One approach is to spread the priests as thinly as possible, with every priest carrying a full load of Sunday Masses, usually in several different locations, sometimes responsible for two or three canonical parishes. This strains still further the ability of the priest to be strategic. The other approach is to impose radical closures of buildings and parishes; this relieves the pressure on priests but demoralises the people.

Buildings themselves also cause difficulties. The Church exists, in theory, to spread the Gospel and enable people to become effective disciples of Christ. In practice, many Catholics have a strong sense of “belonging” to an institution and will work hard to preserve cherished buildings and Mass arrangements. When mergers take place, what happens when a parish in debt is merged with one with a huge surplus? Should the assets of St Peter’s be used to pay the parish debt of St Paul’s, or does that offend a sense of natural justice? We are also not good at making hard decisions about buildings in the face of declining parish revenue, meaning a higher and higher proportion of income ends up being used to sustain property.

Is there a kind of solution we haven’t tried yet? Perhaps there is…

Imagine that a diocese were totally restructured in the following way. I will refer to the new structures as Mparishes and Mdeaneries. The M stands for “mission”, and allows us to distinguish the Mparishes of the new structure from the pre-existing parishes which would make way for them.

Any workable strategy must be based on the following principles:

1. We cannot sustain every existing Sunday Mass, which is a distinct congregation meeting at a particular place and time. Fewer priests means this is physically impossible.

2. We probably can plan for every existing church and Mass centre to retain one Sunday Mass. In a given diocese this will depend on the projected number of priests, and the current number of venues, but in many local circumstances will be doable.

3. Each venue shall have ONLY one Sunday Mass, unless the bishop recognises a genuine need for more than one. But each venue must explore all possible ways of fitting everyone into a single Sunday celebration, e.g. by using a video relay into its hall or hiring a larger building on Sundays. Gathering everyone together at ONE Mass is not only a way of using a priest’s time more efficiently, but also of unifying the local Catholic population and making the most efficient use of volunteers.

4. Each venue shall have a designated parish priest. Team ministry experiments show that other arrangements are generally unpopular and ineffective.

5. In order to ensure that missionary priorities are not lost under the burden of parish management, a significant number of diocesan priests will be appointed Deans and will not be assigned to parishes, but to the missionary development of their deaneries.

What would happen in practice when we apply these principles?

Three or four existing parishes will be gathered into one Mparish, sharing a parish priest. While there may be a short term need to allow the distinct parishes to retain their canonical identities, and independent bank accounts, the aim will be that the Mparish becomes the canonical parish in due course. There is a working presumption that activities (e.g. first communion course, social events) are to be held jointly between parishes insofar as the geography allows this. Priests should not duplicate administrative structures more than necessary. However, each worshipping assembly may need its own liturgy planning group.

Five or six Mparishes are constituted as an Mdeanery. A senior priest is appointed as dean, and key to this strategy is that the dean is NOT a parish priest of any of the parishes, but has faculties to act in all of them.

The Dean’s inalienable responsibilities are:

  • Welfare of the clergy – sharing a meal with each cleric in the deanery individually at least once a month
  • Liaison with the bishop – meeting the bishop corporately or individually once or twice each month
  • Co-ordination of weekday Mass times, at least in urban areas, to ensure the widest choice during the whole day
  • Co-ordinating clergy holidays and himself covering Sunday Masses when one of the other priests is away
  • Covering for each other priest on one weekday in turn, so each priest can have a day off free of all public duties
  • Possibly Baptism Preparation, and baptism for families not actively worshipping in any church

The Dean is also responsible for the following, unless it seems appropriate to delegate them to another priest in the deanery:

  • Chaplain to Secondary Schools and other institutions spanning several parishes in the deanery
  • Adult Religious Education and evangelistic outreach (Alpha or similar events)
  • Retreats for extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion
  • The Confirmation programme across the whole deanery
  • Arrangements for Christmas Vigil Masses and Easter Morning Masses using the biggest possible venues, even borrowed ones

By giving these duties to the Dean, the parish priests experience the same kind of relief that might come of having a curate; and it ensures that important ministries which cannot be the highest priority in individual parishes are nevertheless prioritised.

When the restructure takes place, each permanent deacon can choose to be associated with a particular Mparish priest or to be at the direct service of the Dean, allowing a workaround for personality clashes.

The Dean can choose to be “in residence” with one of the parish priests or live independently in another presbytery; this will depend on the dean’s personal relationship with the available priests.

There will be a deanery bank account, funded by fees paid by each parish for the Dean’s supply work.

New Mass times must be chosen in such a way that in case of necessity, the Mdeanery can cover all its services with two priests absent (since for half the year at least the Dean will be covering for one priest’s planned absence). This means that in a group of a Dean plus five priests there can be at most 12 Masses on Sunday itself, and 8 on Saturday evening, in such a way that the priests can do 2 each on Saturday evening and 3 each on the Sunday. Each of the five Mparishes has either one Saturday evening Mass and three on Sunday, or two Saturday evening Masses with only two on Sunday. When all priests are at work, the Dean can assist with a couple of Sunday Masses for each parish in turn, prioritising situations where a parish priest would otherwise have to develop two different sermons for a given weekend (e.g. where one Mass includes some sacrament of initiation).

The second key to this strategy is that each church building has its own internal account with the diocesan finance office. Already, in English law, a parish is “owned” by the trustees of the diocese, though canon law protects the right of each parish to manage its own assets. When a parish merger takes place, buildings from a parish in debt accrue an internal debt to the diocese; parishes with a healthy bank account have part of that balance lodged against each building. All major expenses relating to that building (insurance, major repairs, safety inspections, interest on building loans etc.) are paid directly by the diocese from that account. In return, each Mparish pays a “rent” to the diocese each year to use each of its buildings. This creates an “internal market” which can force parishes to look at whether using its existing buildings is the most affordable method; each building will have designated “amber flag” and “red flag” percentages of parish income. When the proportion reaches “amber” the parish has two years to find a cheaper way of celebrating Mass. When it reaches red, the diocese denies permission to use the building, forcing use of a cheaper, if less fitting, venue. This stick is coupled with the carrot of promoting a missionary ethos which sees the purpose of the church to make disciples, not maintain buildings.

Choosing to adopt this new structure of Mparishes and Mdeaneries offers a third option falling between the radical closure of parishes and the usual tensions of parish mergers. It seeks to avoid the cessation of worship in any given locations, though may require use of a non-traditional space for worship (overflow or hired large hall) in that location. It will force most of the diocesan priests to spread themselves even thinner than if some of their number did not become Mdeans but at the same time offers significant relief from the pressures of being priest across several parishes, with guaranteed cover for holidays, weekly days off, and support for local ministry. I offer this to the Church as a possible solution which, to my knowledge, has not been tried.

* A “Sunday Mass” in this context includes any Mass from 4 pm onward on a Saturday evening celebrated with the intent of letting worshippers fulfil their Sunday obligation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking Away

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

Are you ready to walk away from Jesus?

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

Jesus was dead.

Hope was dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Help! I’m a Catholic who wants to evangelise!

You are reading this page because you are a Catholic who wants to share the Good News of Jesus with other people, but you don’t know where to start.

First, congratulations! Trust your instincts. Don’t listen to the people who say “that’s a Protestant thing” or “Catholics don’t do that”. On the contrary, heed Pope Francis who reminds us that all Catholics are called to be Missionary Disciples.

There’s a broad sense in which all the good works done by the Church are ‘evangelistic’. But not all of the Church’s good works explicitly speak about Jesus. There’s a blurred line where evangelisation stops and catechesis begins, at the point where a listener knows Jesus is real and wants to learn more about him. Nevertheless, you know you aren’t called to join the SVP or be a leader in your local RCIA group. You want to evangelise – you want to introduce people to Jesus.

But, how do we evangelise as Catholics? The best place to start depends on your context. Who are you working with and for?

I’m a lone Catholic with no-one else who shares my vision.

Don’t panic! You can do a great deal on your own, because effective evangelisation generally takes place within existing relationships. There are some things you can do to hone your skills at sharing your faith in a way that doesn’t put other people off.

  • Learn to be sensitive to where other people are in their growth towards faith. Read Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples and watch the Proclaim’15 video on Sharing the Gospel Message.
  • Practice giving your testimony – and watch the video on Testimonies.
  • You can volunteer to your parish priest to “mentor” anyone who needs a confirmation sponsor or has expressed interest in the Church.
  • You could get involved as a volunteer with one of the non-parochial Catholic groups which runs faith-deepening activities – groups such as Youth 2000 or Celebrate.
  • You could also get involved with other local Christians running Alpha.
  • There are lots of other ‘lifestyle’ suggestions from the Home Mission Desk.

There are a few of us in my parish who want to evangelize, but my parish priest isn’t interested.

This isn’t unusual. Hard-pressed parish priests might worry that they don’t have time to manage another parish group, or might be struggling to sustain the parish RCIA arrangements and worry about how they would manage if you were successful in your evangelising. Nevertheless, a parish priest has no authority to stop any group of Catholics from meeting and praying on their own private property (see paragraphs 19 and 25 of Apostolicam Actuositatem).

I’ve been asked by my parish priest to start an evangelisation group.

Great! So first you need to form your group and do some general training. Then you need to identify what particular opportunities there are in your parish and get some training and do some planning around your project.

A good starting point will be to watch the Proclaim’15 videos about Vision and Strategy and Parish Teams, and how to share the Gospel message and give a Testimony.  If you are also responsible for organising intercession in support of evangelisation, use the session on Prayer (but if you’re not responsible for that, make sure someone is!)

If your team doesn’t feel very confident, you could run some more extensive training – in 5 sessions you can do Pass It On, or in 18 short or 9 long sessions you can use the Relit Evangelisation Course (that’s not cheap to buy, though).

After basic training, it’s time to decide what kind of project your group will tackle. Here, the Southwark Handbook can be invaluable. You will probably settle on one of three kinds of projects – to reach non-churchgoing Catholics, to reach people with no particular faith background, or to help those who already worship in your parish to move from being mere churchgoers to missionary disciples.

Focus on non-Churchgoing Catholics

Of all the human beings who don’t attend Mass, non-Churchgoing Catholics are the easiest target. They are members of the families of the people who do go to Mass. They are parents at the local Catholic School. They are easy to identify – but hard to shift. Dr Ann Casson’s 2014 research established that young Catholic parents consider themselves “good Catholics” if they are kind to other people and turn up in church at Christmas and Easter.

The Catholic Church’s focus on non-Churchgoing Catholics in England and Wales is branded as Crossing the Threshold and an e-manual is available, as well as a video from Proclaim’15. There are also extensive resources for use around Christmas and Easter.

You may wish to adopt one of the established packages – Keeping In Touch, Landings or Catholics Returning Home.

Focus on non-Catholics

The most challenging project for most Catholics will be the prospect of sharing the Catholic faith with people who have no prior Catholic connections. Pioneering work in this regard has been done by the Seeker Centre at Pantasaph, who have developed an Evangelisation Manual. There is also a Proclaim’15 video. You could run an Alpha, which contains only basic teaching common to all mainstream Christian traditions. If you have a town centre location, you might consider the Nightfever model, or offer some other kind of Prayer Experience.

Focus on evangelising the churchgoers

Many regular churchgoers will fail to understand the need or importance of evangelisation. You may decide that your starting point is to raise support among the congregation before you start to reach outside. There are three Proclaim’15 videos touching on particular groups you may wish to work with:

You may decide that a formal cell-group structure will work in your parish. If so, there are several models available:

Other tools for deepening the faith of a congregation include Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism resources and the video sets from Cafébut remember that education alone may not be enough – parishioners need to be confronted with the challenge of taking God seriously. Some courses (e.g. The Gift) do include a step of personal commitment but a parish mission can help more people take that step, and help to run a parish mission is available from groups like Café and the Sion Community.

I’m a parish priest, but I’m not sure what to do.

Your calling is to be an enabler of evangelisation. Found a team, and let them take the steps above. Your job is to equip the laity – they will connect with people you would never meet in your daily activities. But also have a strategy for your parish with evangelisation as an integral part. If your resources allow it, have some kind of pre-RCIA activity, such as Alpha, running all year round, and some kind of parish “Connect and Explore” fellowship which can help regular parishioners deepen their faith, and also serve as a post-RCIA opportunity. If your parish is too small to do that, you may need to consciously focus on raising the commitment level of existing worshippers, following the pattern of Divine Renovation.

In your preaching, be conscious of the need to draw your congregation on a journey from membership to discipleship. You don’t have time to read a book, so try this short summary of Forming Intentional DisciplesWhen you feel the time is right to issue a more direct challenge, run a Parish Mission.

I’ve been made responsible for promoting evangelisation across a diocese, deanery or cluster.

Great! The most important thing is to resist the temptation to put on some “big event” aimed at unchurched people or non-churchgoing Catholics. Big events only ever work when you have an enthusiastic network of churchgoers ready and willing to invite their non-churchgoing friends to come with them.

There is value in having networking events for active evangelisers to support each other. The wider the area, the lower the frequency. A city might have a monthly gathering for evangelisers – a diocese might have a convention once every year or two.

You can organise regional events to pray for intercession – you can use the Proclaim’15 Prayer Resources, the Mass for the New Evangelisation, or the Masses on pages 810-823 and 1342-1345 of the British & Australian Roman Missal.

Above all, promote evangelisation at the grassroots level – most effective evangelisation is carried out by individuals and fostered by parishes. Promote all the small-scale solutions above and encourage your evangelisers to persevere. May the Lord who has begun the good work in you, bring it to completion!

Talk About Jesus!

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

How many of your children still attend Mass?

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

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

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

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

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

Today, Jesus is grilling some fish already!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Instruct the Ignorant!

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Do you show mercy in your daily life?

If we want to be merciful, like the Father, we must offer mercy.

If we want to make a good confession this Lent, we must face up to where we’ve failed.

Over the next few weeks, we will consider the spiritual works of mercy. Today, I invite you to ask: have I instructed those who are ignorant?

Consider ignorance. There are things we don’t know we don’t know, ‘til someone shows us. I’ll always be grateful to the friend who taught me that SHIFT-F3 on my computer keyboard can flip a word into capital letters – a great time-saver! And to the seminarian who taught me to kick a football straight using the side of my foot, not the toe of my boot. I’m reminded of the story of the teenage boy who left home thinking his parents were quite ignorant, and returned from college amazed at how much they’d learned in three years!

What about religious ideas? In last weekend’s sermon, we were reminded that God has poured blessings on outsiders, so we must be ready to reach out and invite them in. But in this day and age, it can feel very uncomfortable to claim we “know the right answer” about religious things.

You might have seen the recent BBC documentary where Adrian Chiles travelled the Mediterranean, interviewing religious believers. His closing comments made his position clear: he was the kind of Catholic who felt he had a lot in common with Muslims who care about people, and with Jews who care about people, but said: “If you believe your way is the only way, your truth is the only truth – I’m sorry, I’m not on your team.”

Ouch.

Our Lord Jesus once said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.”

Does that mean Our Lord and Adrian Chiles aren’t on the same team?

St Paul wrote, in the words we’ve just heard, “The gospel will save you only if you keep believing exactly what I preached to you – believing anything else will not lead to anything.” He also tells us that he has taken care to make sure he is teaching what the other apostles also taught: that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures. Knowing the truth matters.

An O-ring seal compressed in a vice - it stays that way when released, if cooledLast weekend, news programmes remembered that 30 years previously, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take-off. The reason? Safety seals in the outer casing didn’t work properly in very cold weather. The risks were known, but NASA felt pressured to keep projecting a “can-do” attitude to spaceflight. When Nobel prizewinner Richard Feynman pointed this out, he concluded: “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

Claiming that we know the Right Answer doesn’t always make us popular. But reality always wins.

There’s a right way to kick a football. There’s a quick way to use a Word Processor. And there is most definitely a wrong way to launch a Space Shuttle, if you want to keep its passengers safe.

We can sympathise with Adrian Chiles. He doesn’t want to claim there is a Right Answer about religion, because he is anxious – “How can we ever be sure that we’re right?” What he really means is that he finds something in our Catholic faith attractive enough that he is drawn to join, but not so compelling that he’s motivated to invite others.

Faith is a kind of knowing. It’s a knowing that we know without knowing how we know.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls fisherman to be fishers-of-men, to seek souls, to win people as his friends and followers. Does he do this out of self-interest, wanting a bigger crowd than any other rabbi – or does he do it because following Jesus matters?

Simon Peter sensed that it matters. What other rabbi could show a fisherman where to make a record-breaking catch?

St Paul sensed that it matters. Hadn’t this Jesus, after dying on a Cross, showed himself to 500 disciples all at once, and then to Paul himself while journeying to Damascus to take many Christians prisoner?

It’s a spiritual work of mercy to instruct the ignorant. But to do this, we have to know the truth, and know how to pass it on tactfully. The basics are the Creeds and Dogmas of our faith. In these, we are confident – we literally “have faith”.

How can we tell the difference between the basic teachings, and other things which are just the opinions of scholars, or the way we happen to do things? This takes study. It’s a spiritual work of mercy to instruct the ignorant. If you don’t know the answer, begin with yourself. After all, for some months now, we have been praying for the Lord to invite us to know him better, through study.

Do you show mercy in your daily life?

Today, I invite you to ask: have I instructed those who are ignorant?

If not, make a good confession – and then begin with yourself!

 

Summer holiday?

Homily at Christ the King for the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

“The Lord is my Shepherd!” What a beautiful, comforting sentiment. At least, until you think more closely about what it means. Then, it becomes a challenge!

Our picture of a shepherd might come from memories of One Man and His Dog on the BBC – the shepherd whistling and shouting to a dog who nips at the hooves of the sheep and rounds them up into a pen. Middle Eastern shepherds worked rather differently – the sheep would recognise their shepherd’s voice and he would lead them out, calling them by name.

Without a shepherd, sheep can do what they like, go wherever they like – and stray into danger. With a shepherd, the sheep are safe – but their freedom is limited, too. They are no longer free to go wherever they wish – the shepherd will lead them away from danger and towards safe pastures. The kings, priests and prophets of ancient Israel were called to ensure that their people only worshipped the God of Abraham and avoided pagan religions – but they weren’t always faithful to that mission. How does God react? I’m not sure if it’s a threat or a promise, but Jeremiah says, look out – God is coming in person to sort things out!

God does come to us, in the person of Jesus. Just like the rest of us, God-made-flesh gets tired after a long day and needs some space to chillax with his friends. But there’s no rest for Jesus on this day – the crowds have found him, and he accepts that with good grace. When he sees this flock of people who have turned out in the hope of receiving a healing or witnessing a miracle, he sets out to lead them to a place where they might not want to go. Yes, he heals those in the crowd who are sick. But he challenges them, too. He speaks about God’s Kingdom – he asks them if they are willing to be faithful followers of God. They already know the Jewish Law, with its command to love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength. But will they embrace it?

We hear these words from Scripture as the schools prepare to break up, and Britain moves into the holiday season. For a few weeks we might be free of the constraints of our employment or studies. And the way we choose to use our freedom is an excellent test of how truly the Lord has become our shepherd.  For while in the rest of the year, we must juggle our religious commitments with work and family, when on holiday we have a chance to re-prioritise. In today’s Gospel, Jesus invites his disciples to go aside to a quiet place, to rest and enjoy the silence. Have you planned to have a holiday crammed full of activities, or will you make space for silence?generic image of a backpaack

Sadly, this year, “rest” and “holiday” are two words which don’t sit together as easily as they should. After last month’s shootings in Tunisia, many of us are thinking carefully about our holiday plans. Some holidaymakers have made a point of returning to Tunisia or other resorts in Islamic countries, as a sign of solidarity with the innocent locals, or to demonstrate that they will not be cowed by terrorists. Even if you are thinking twice about your holiday plans, remember that statistically, you have a much greater chance of being involved in a traffic accident than being caught up in an at of terrorism, in the air or on the ground.

If you are travelling abroad, I offer you these words of comfort, from Jeremiah: God loves and cares for his flock even when scattered among many countries! Our Second Reading reminded us that Jesus has broken down barriers, making all his followers one family. Whichever country you go to, your spiritual family will be there already. Are you planning to meet with them? Will you make time to visit a church, even if your travel plans make it impossible  to be there for Sunday Mass? If the country has ancient Christian heritage sites, will you visit them?

The way we use our vacation time, when we have more freedom to choose priorities for ourselves, will reveal much about our true faith. Any dismay we might feel at the thought of making God part of our holiday plans, shows us how unwilling we are to yield our lives to God. The Lord is not your trip advisor, asking you to consider His recommendations and adopt 7 out of 10 commandments. The Lord is your shepherd, inviting you to follow him on the only path which leads to eternal life. The decision to follow is one that each one of us must make when we hear the voice of the shepherd: to follow to safety, or to stray in peril.

So consider it! Try something different this year – take God on holiday with you! There’s no need to be sheepish – just let God be your shepherd, and relax.

Adapted from a previous sermon.

Have you met my friend?

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

“You really ought to meet Helena!* The two of you would get on really well!”

It was around the second year of my time in seminary that a longstanding friend made an unexpected comment. I was working towards the Catholic priesthood, with its lifelong commitment to celibacy, so I was a bit perplexed at the thought of this friend, a committed Catholic herself, playing matchmaker. Making “a new lady friend I would get on really well with” wasn’t high on my priority list at the time.

But a few months later, when we were all at the same social function,  my friend did introduce me to Helena. And she was right! We did get on really well, and from that grew a deep and cherished friendship which has endured to this day.

The twelve disciples were given a mission similar to that of my old friend. She wanted to introduce me to Helena. The twelve had to introduce a nation to Jesus. They were sent not only to preach and heal, but to prepare the towns to meet Jesus when he came.

Our faith, our Christian faith, is in a person, the person called Jesus. We are not followers of a Book or a Law. True, we read of Jesus in a Book, a Book of the Gospels. True, Jesus gave us a Law, that we must love God, and love one another. But these things are not primary. The great and extraordinary message which we celebrate as Christians is that God visited us on earth at a moment of human history; Jesus, God-made-flesh, is our teacher, saviour and friend.Generic image of a robed prophet

The twelve disciples were allowed to take a staff, a pair of sandals, and the clothes they were standing up in. Nothing else – except the authority of Jesus. They were not without resources – but they had to learn to trust in God, not in money or their own ingenuity. The sign that Jesus was with them, unseen, was that they were able to work miracles, healing the sick and casting out demons.

My old friend knew me well, and she knew Helena. She knew the two of us would get on well, and she persevered until we did meet. I am very glad, now, that she did, but until I met Helena, I didn’t know why she was working so hard to get us together. And  just the same thing happens when we want to introduce one of our own friends to Jesus. When we talk about our faith, we will meet disinterest and perhaps hostility, until the time is right – and then something will happen, which will let us connect our friend to Jesus when they’ve had a glimpse of his power, or they cry out in pain or in need. Then, they will discover Jesus, and a beautiful friendship will begin.

We must be persistent in the work of introducing our friends to Jesus, because, “a personal relationship with Christ [is the] key to complete fulfilment”.

Hang on minute – a personal relationship with Jesus? Doesn’t that sound like a strange, Protestant idea?

I was quoting someone when I said that “a personal relationship with Christ” is the “key to complete fulfilment”.

Was it Billy Graham? No.

Was it the Archbishop of Canterbury? No.

In fact, I was quoting from Pope Benedict XVI, in a speech he made in 2011 to the Bishops of the Philippines. Why?

Pope Benedict hoped that “each Catholic will grasp in his or her innermost depths the life-transforming fact that God exists, that he loves us, and that in Christ he answers the deepest questions of our lives.”

This is a message the Catholic Church has kept quiet about for too long. When I meet young Catholic parents who want their babies baptised, they understand that we must “love one another” but when I ask them about God, many of them don’t understand that God is a person who loves them. When I say the word “God”, all they hear is “church stuff”. That’s why, this weekend, Catholic leaders from across England and Wales gathered to discuss how we can become more missionary as a church – how we can introduce our nation to Jesus, and through Jesus, to the One whom He called Father.

St Paul has no doubt about who Jesus and His Father are. I encourage you to re-read today’s Second Reading and make it your own song of praise to God. In a few words it reminds us that God-the-Father loves us just as we are, God doesn’t want us to be punished for any wrong deeds we’ve done, and that Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, enables our sins to be forgiven and ourselves to be adopted as children in God’s family.

Maybe you’re reluctant to meet God. Are you worried that God will blame you for the wrong deeds that you have done? But God sent his Son, Jesus, to forgive your sins.

Are you worried that you will be ashamed about who you are in God’s presence? But God loves you just as you are and wants you to be part of His family.

Do you blame God for some tragedy which has afflicted your family? Unless you can forgive God for not managing the Universe in the way you’d prefer, you’ll never be able to know that love and peace which God longs to give you.

Have you met my friend, Jesus? Have you met His Father, the God who loves you?

If these words sound like hollow ideas, then allow me to make an introduction. When you approach the altar for Holy Communion at this Mass, ask Jesus to show you His Father, and reveal to you his love. I know that you, Jesus and His Father are going to get on really well together. I hope you meet each other real soon!

* Not her real name, to protect her privacy.