Ephphatha! Be open! (Sunday edition)

Homily for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans (Sunday morning Signed Mass, and anticipating Home Mission Sunday 2018).

“Ephphatha!”

That’s not a word you hear every day.

The Gospels are written in Greek, but Our Lord Jesus spoke Aramaic, and sometimes one of the words he spoke was so powerful, that the Gospel writers wrote down exactly what he said. The disciples who were with him on that day must have sensed God’s power flowing through him strongly at that moment – and a man who had a lifelong impediment of hearing and speech suddenly spoke and heard clearly!

And now he has a voice, what’s the first thing Jesus asks him to do?

“Don’t tell anyone about me!”

Can you imagine having experienced such a mighty miracle, knowing that everyone will want to know the story of how you found your voice, and then not being allowed to talk about it? Ouch!

But we’re told that people ignored Jesus’ request and talked about him anyway.

Any story of healing is a challenge when we experience of lack of wholeness. This week, thousands of Deaf Catholics from around the world are gathering in Lourdes for an international pilgrimage. There are well over 100 recognised miracles of healing from Lourdes – but countless thousands of pilgrims who return without the physical healing they have hoped and prayed for. If God has the power to heal, why do we experience it so rarely? Perhaps God grants miracles especially where they will help people see that a bigger issue is at stake – so this man who cannot hear or speak is a sign to us that there are people who cannot hear who Jesus us or speak of him to others.

During his life on earth, Jesus was keen not to become too famous too quickly. Otherwise he might have been arrested before he had finished his work of preaching and healing. But once he rose from the dead – and try keeping that a secret! – things changed. Before he ascended into heaven, he told his friends and followers to go into the world and spread the good news.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is completing a journey through pagan lands. The people there don’t know about the God of the Bible. Some don’t believe in any god – others believe in various Greek or Roman gods. It’s rather like Britain today, where not so many people are Christian any more. We are called to talk about Jesus in a land which knows little about him!

If you need somewhere to start, I’m going to give you two easy lines. Perhaps you can repeat them after me:

Jesus was executed but rose from the dead. (Controversial, but why did were so many of his friends willing to die for insisting this was true?)

Following Jesus will lead you to Heaven.

There’s much more that can be said – the whole Bible is a love story about God reaching out to the human race. And by healing this man who cannot hear or speak, Jesus isn’t just curing one person, he is sending us a message. “O people of the world, can you hear what God wants to say to you? Are you able to pass on his good news to others?”

“Ephphatha! Be opened!”

Open your eyes! See that Jesus is present in our world. He is there whenever Christians gather in his name, but especially when the bread and wine consecrated at Mass are present. This weekend, thousands our of brothers and sisters are gathered in Liverpool, for a great celebration of our faith in Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament. To mark this “Adoremus” festival, you are all invited to gather with Jesus on Thursday evening to pray for this parish – before Mass next Saturday, to pray for priests – and on the last Wednesday of this month, to pray for protection of human life in the womb. We also have many opportunities during the week for private prayer in our chapel. So I’d like to invite everyone who doesn’t normally visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament to come for one hour some time this month – and parents and godparents, please bring your children.

Open your lips! We’re too good at keeping Our Lord’s instruction today – “Don’t tell anyone about me!” We no longer live at a time when Jesus is in mortal danger; now we live under his command to tell the world. That’s why, next month, we’re starting our Discovering Christ course. Only by coming together in church groups where we can talk about Jesus and learn more about him, can we become comfortable sharing this message which people who aren’t church people. There’ll be more about Discovering Christ at the end of today’s Mass.

Open your hearts! Do you love Jesus? Have you experienced his love for you? Have you heard his gentle voice saying that you are his beloved brother or sister, and he wants to walk with you in good times and in bad? Only those who are open to his love can share it with others, but sometimes, through fear or doubt, our hearts are closed.

“Ephphatha! Be opened!” A long time ago, God’s power flowed through Jesus and loosened the tongue of a man who could not speak. Today, God’s power will pour out upon this altar to nourish us anew with the Body of Christ. One day soon, each of us will open our ears to what Jesus is asking us to do and our lips to flow with his praise. Open your eyes. Open your ears. Open your lips! Open your hearts! Ephphatha! In Jesus name, be open!

Ephphatha! Be open!

Homily for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B at St Philip Evans (Saturday evening Mass, with baptisms, and anticipating Home Mission Sunday 2018).

“Ephphatha!”

That’s not a word you hear every day.

The Gospels are written in Greek, but Our Lord Jesus spoke Aramaic, and sometimes one of the words he spoke was so powerful, that the Gospel writers wrote down exactly what he said. The disciples who were with him on that day must have sensed God’s power flowing through him strongly at that moment – and a man who had a lifelong impediment of hearing and speech suddenly spoke and heard clearly!

And now he has a voice, what’s the first thing Jesus asks him to do?

“Don’t tell anyone about me!”

Can you imagine having experienced such a mighty miracle, knowing that everyone will want to know the story of how you found your voice, and then not being allowed to talk about it? Ouch!

But we’re told that people ignored Jesus’ request and talked about him anyway.

During his life on earth, Jesus was keen not to become too famous too quickly. Otherwise he might have been arrested before he had finished his work of preaching and healing. But once he rose from the dead – and try keeping that a secret! – things changed. Before he ascended into heaven, he told his friends and followers to go into the world and spread the good news.

Every Christian is called to be a bearer of the good news. That’s why, as soon as these two children are baptised this evening, I will carry out the “Rite of Ephphatha”. Just as Jesus did in the Gospels, I will touch their ears and their lips, and commission them to hear God’s commands and tell the world about Jesus.

Godparents, that’s where you come in.

How many of you here this evening are godparents to at least one person?

Your highest responsibility is, by your words and example, to teach your godchildren to talk about Jesus.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is completing a journey through pagan lands. The people there don’t know about the God of the Bible. Some don’t believe in any god – others believe in various Greek or Roman gods. It’s rather like Britain today, where not so many people are Christian any more. Your godchildren are called to talk about Jesus in a land which knows little about him!

If you need somewhere to start, I’m going to give you two easy lines. Perhaps you can repeat them after me:

Jesus died to save you from Hell.

Following Jesus will lead you to Heaven.

There’s much more that can be said – the whole Bible is a love story about God reaching out to the human race. And by healing this man who cannot hear or speak, Jesus isn’t just curing one person, he is sending us a message. “O people of the world, can you hear what God wants to say to you? Are you able to pass on his good news to others?”

“Ephphatha! Be opened!”

Open your eyes! See that Jesus is present in our world. He is there whenever Christians gather in his name, but especially when the bread and wine consecrated at Mass are present. This weekend, thousands our of brothers and sisters are gathered in Liverpool, for a great celebration of our faith in Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament. To mark this “Adoremus” festival, you are all invited to gather with Jesus on Thursday evening to pray for this parish – before Mass next Saturday, to pray for priests – and on the last Wednesday of this month, to pray for protection of human life in the womb. We also have many opportunities during the week for private prayer in our chapel. So I’d like to to invite everyone who doesn’t normally visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament to come for one hour some time this month – and parents and godparents, please bring your children.

Open your lips! We’re too good at keeping Our Lord’s instruction today – “Don’t tell anyone about me!” We no longer live in a time when Jesus is in mortal danger; now we live under his command to tell the world. That’s why, next month, we’re starting our Discovering Christ course. Only by coming together in church groups where we can talk about Jesus and learn more about him, can we become comfortable sharing this message which people who aren’t church people. There’ll be more about Discovering Christ at the end of today’s Mass.

Open your hearts! Do you love Jesus? Have you experienced his love for you? Have you heard his gentle voice saying that you are his beloved brother or sister, and he wants to walk with you in good times and in bad? Only those who are open to his love can share it with others, but sometimes, through fear or doubt, our hearts are closed.

“Ephphatha! Be opened!” A long time ago, God’s power flowed through Jesus and loosened the tongue of a man who could not speak. Today, God’s power will open the fountain of baptism and join two children to the Body of Christ. One day soon, each of us will open our ears to what Jesus is asking us to do and our lips to flow with his praise. Open your eyes. Open your ears. Open your lips! Open your hearts! Ephphatha! In Jesus name, be open!

The Parable of the Pollen

Homily at St Philip Evans on the 11th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like this.

A garden was full of beautiful fruit trees. These trees bore pollen that had some amazing powers!

Wherever the pollen landed, it brought forth fruit. Even if the pollen landed on the a tree’s own sapling, or on a bush from a totally different species, it still brought forth luscious, tasty, fruit!

But the gardener had a problem. The oldest trees were dying. And the younger trees weren’t producing much fruit.

Some trees said: We don’t want to go to the effort of producing pollen. We can put out shoots and grow saplings without them. And it was true. The trees were good at producing saplings… but those saplings tended to put out runners, grew outside the garden, and the saplings bore no fruit.

Other trees said: We’re afraid to produce pollen. Once we let go of our pollen, our flowers die. What would people think of us if we didn’t look beautiful, respectable? We stand tall, showing off our lovely flowers, and we don’t want to annoy people by shedding dust all over them!

The gardener grieved. The trees had forgotten that they were fruit trees. The very reason they were in the garden was to bear fruit that would bring life to the world around. If there was no fruit, one day the garden would die!

Indeed, some trees in the garden shared his grief. They WANTED to bear fruit, but no-one was sharing pollen with them, and they didn’t feel confident to share their own because they weren’t sure how to do it… no-one was showing them good examples!

Fortunately there were some new trees in the garden, they were exotic varieties that had been transplanted from gardens that were bearing fruit. For now, they were healthy. But the gardener was worried… when they put out saplings, those saplings might say: ‘Why should we shed our pollen when the other trees in this garden don’t? They will look more beautiful than us when our flowers die!’

The gardener loved flowers very much. He was proud of his beautiful garden, and he loved standing back and looking at all the beautiful colours. But there are many kinds of beauty. Is a luscious apple or a ripe mango less beautiful than a tree in blossom? It is a different kind of beauty… but you can’t eat blossom.

The garden was not meant to be a flower garden. It was an orchard, destined to bear fruit. If it stopped bearing fruit, the town around it would starve!

The gardener realised it was time for desperate measures. He would have to teach the trees to shed pollen again. So he went to work creating bags of artificial pollen, and he went round the whole garden, and rubbed a little on each tree. “Now then!” he declared, “It is time for us to learn how to shed our pollen again. Look out for any plant you can sprinkle a little on to. It might be one of your own saplings. It might be a tree that’s been growing near you for a long time. But any bush that’s within reach, even if it looks really unpromising, if you can reach it, sprinkle a little pollen and see what happens.”

Friends, you are the trees in the garden of this parish. We are not good, in this country, at speaking openly about why church matters to us, and how Jesus invites everyone in Cardiff to come and be his follower, eating at his table. The fruit that we are meant to bear is the fruit of new and committed members of our church, living up to the six expectations I’ve spoken about so often.

On your benches are invitation cards. These are your pollen. I can’t think of any approach less threatening than saying to a family member or friend, “I’d like to show you what I do on a Sunday morning. We’re having a special Guest Day on July 1st. I’d be honoured if you’d be my guest.”

Imagine if we all invited one other person, and 100 guests actually came on July 1st?

Imagine if 10 of those guests liked what they saw and became part of the life of our church?

Imagine if we did the same thing every year?

We are brilliant at being flowers for Christ. He sees us at Mass every weekend and he smiles. He sees the effort we make to love others, and again he smiles. But remember, Jesus is looking for fruit, and when a fig tree didn’t offer him any, He cursed it!

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“.

The Books You Need to Read

Over the course of my ministry, I’ve found a few crucial books that have deeply helped the way I conduct my work as a priest. When I find such a book, I usually write notes of the key points. Now I know busy clergy don’t have time to read books, but they might want to read a quick summary. So I make these available on the internet… in the hope that the summary will entice the reader to eventually buy the book. Here’s my current library (and this page may get updated from time to time.)

Evangelisation

Forming Intentional Disciples – based on case studies of 37 converts who went from no faith to a fervent Catholic life, Sherry Weddell indicates how we can nudge souls in the right direction one step at a time. (I’ve also made a video about this!)

Parish Management

Rebuilt is the story of an American parish priest and his lay associate, who
successfully grew their parish from 1500 to 4000 regular worshippers by a relentless focus on reaching the lost. They offer principles which are readily transferable to other parishes.

Divine Renovation tells how a Candian parish has promoted high levels of engagement by practicing Catholics. 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. Raising engagement may be more managable for a parish too small to start a working group to transform a parish the Rebuilt way.

Other Pastoral Texts

The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic is not a book I find myself referring to as often as the ones above, perhaps becuase the “four signs” are part of the engagement included in Divine Renovation. But you may be interested in the Christmas Book Programme!

The General Directory for Catechesis sets out the Church’s vision of how we should catechise.

Love and Responsibility gives Catholic sexual teaching from the perspective of Karol Wojtyła (later St John Paul II).

Unbound deals with the ministry of deliverance, and is useful both for pastors, and allows a simple prayerful approach to self-deliverance for those who cannot find a pastor willing to assist. I have also summarised the Catholic Church’s official documents on exorcism and deliverance.

Multimedia

OK, these aren’t books but I want to highly recommend some sites doing video resources too:

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.