Hope and the Family Bond

Homily at the Céilí Community Mission to the Drumraney and Ballymore Parishes

Monday Mission Mass – Ephesians 4:1-6 and Luke 2:39-52

We’ve just heard from the Gospel how the Holy Family visited Jerusalem. Here’s another story about a family who did that:

A man, his wife and his mother-in-law went on vacation to the Holy Land, but tragically, at the end of the holiday, the mother-in-law died. The family were told they could bury her there for €200, but it would cost €5,000 to bring her back to Ireland.

The man thought about it for a while and decided to have her brought back.

The undertaker was surprised and asked the man why he was willing to spend so much money, when it would be so much easier to bury her in Jerusalem?

“Well,” said the man, “because it’s my mother-in-law, I don’t want to take any unnecessary risks. I mean, people say that someone buried here rose from the dead!”

It’s easy to become cynical about family life.  Mother-in-law jokes are bread-and-butter for many comedians. The weekly diet of drama and entertainment served up by our TV channels revolves around broken families, adultery, and violence. None of us come from a home where everything is happy all the time. Pope Francis knows that all of this tempts us to see the family as a problem. (Amoris Laetitia 7) But families are not a problem! They are a daily invitation for us to choose to “bear with one another in love”!

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that “you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” That’s wrong!

Now, it’s true that we can’t choose the mother and father we’re born to. The parents we’ve got are the parents we’ve got.

But in one very important way, we do choose our family. Every new household is based on the choice which two people make, to come together for life.

Out of that choice comes other factors which are beyond our control. Certainly, you might marry someone you find adorable, but they do come with in-laws. Pope Francis says this: “Your in-laws are not a threat! You are called to be generous to them – because this is also an act of love towards your husband or wife.” The Pope also acknowledges that each household is entitled to its own privacy. Respecting your mother-in-law doesn’t mean running your house by her rules!

Family doesn’t only mean the people who live under your roof. Some of us might live alone, but we all come from families, and we’re all part of wider families. Even if we have no living blood-relatives, if we belong to the Church we are part of God’s family.

There’s a clue in the very word family. F.A.M.I.L.Y. – Forget About Me – I Love You! [If that sounds like a rap to you, you’re not wrong – the rapping Franciscan priest, Stan Fortuna, sang this at World Youth Day Sydney in 2008.] True family only happens where your needs are more important than mine – and at the same time, you believe that my needs are more important than yours. That’s how we can meet in the middle.

I once met a young mother who’d spent a year studying Catholic teaching on the family. I asked her what the one most important message was that she would want the world to know. Her answer? “The best way to love your children is to love your spouse.”

Sometimes, when a married person comes to me for confession, I ask them, “When was the last time you went on a date with your husband or wife?” If they’ve had children for any length of time, they often struggle to remember. Even if all their children have grown up and flown the nest, they often haven’t got back into the habit of enjoying each other’s company. I’ve got news for you. In marriage, dating is not an optional extra! That means taking time to communicate anew that you love one another – but also to listen to one another.

Pope Francis knows that the way we do family is changing. In past ages, it would have been normal for a husband to go out to work and make the big decisions, and for a wife to do all the housework. Now, the Pope notes, there’s a more equal sharing of responsibility, and better communication between husband and wife. And communication is key! No matter how much you think you’re in the right, take time to listen to the other person’s point of view. Don’t raise awkward ideas needlessly, or speak in a tone of voice which could cause offence. And since you also have to live with the person you’re disagreeing with, never forget to use the words “please”, “thank you”, and “sorry” every day!

Remember, you can choose your family. You can choose your husband or wife! You can choose to give time and attention to your children! You can choose to say, “I love you” in whichever way works best for you! And as often as you can carve out the time, you can choose to go on a date! If something is important, we choose to make time for it – and at the heart of every marriage is your declaration that nothing is more important than your significant other. The Lord is calling you to true love – to make that effort.

I’m not married, so I want to borrow a final thought from George Dalton, a Christian writer who is:

I never look at my wife without saying a prayer of thanksgiving for her wonderful parents.   Have I always been the perfect son-in-law? No, do you think the apostle Peter was the perfect son-in law?  Probably not, because he was human just like we are, but we know he had a mother –in-law, and I’ll bet he loved her and honoured her.

Dalton invites each one of you to make a decision to show God’s love to all of your in-laws and awkward relatives. He notes that at first, if you change your behaviour, they’ll think you’re taking the mickey – but if you love them for long enough, they’ll realize that you really mean it!


Homily at St Philip Evans, for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Continuing our series on the Family, based on Amoris Laetitia.

A document headed There’s a story about a saint who decided to spend some time alone, praying, on a high mountain. At first, his prayers were going well, but then the sun began to set and he started to feel the cold. In his prayers he started complaining to God about the discomfort he was feeling.

Suddenly, he had a thought. He took off the cloak he was wearing and laid it down at his feet. For as long as he could endure the chill, he worshipped God. Then, when he could stand it no more, he picked up the cloak at his feet and cried out, “Thanks be to God, there’s a cloak here to keep me warm!”

That saint understood that everything we have is an undeserved gift from God. That’s an important attitude, which vaccinates us from a terrible spiritual disease: consumerism!

In the nine years I’ve been a priest, I’ve had innumerable conversations with parishioners whose lives have been ruined by disputes about inheritance. They have expected to receive a certain amount in a will, but either they were left less than they hoped for, or another family member failed to hand over what they ought to have done, or in the absence of written instructions, the person didn’t inherit what they believed they were entitled to.

Now I’m the first to recognise that when you expect to inherit something, it’s easy to daydream. My parents own a house, and when the time comes, its value will probably be split between my brother and myself. Since I don’t have a mortgage, I can imagine paying for a round-the-world holiday, or buying a brand-new car, or sponsoring some expensive charitable project. Yet maybe that won’t happen. Maybe between now and then, the value of the house will have to be transformed into healthcare fees – or a survey might find an old mineshaft under its foundations and decimate the value.

Even Jesus was reluctant to get involved in a property dispute. “Who appointed me your judge?” he asks. In fact, one day Jesus will judge us, because the God He calls Father has appointed him judge over all humanity. But he will judge us on the quality of our generous giving.

And when it comes to questions of inheritance, the Old Testament preacher Qoheleth has nailed it. The only person who earned the wealth will one day die, so inevitably it will go so someone who hasn’t earned it. That’s why it’s a big mistake to ask whether an inheritance is fair. Inheritances are intrinsically generous. So the only real complaint we can make is that the will-maker was not as generous towards us as we hoped. Now I’ll admit that it’s certainly unfair if someone makes you a verbal promise and doesn’t follow up by writing that into their will – but that’s about breaking your word, which is a different issue altogether.

St Paul reminds us that we must live according to the values of heaven. We must not lie to one another. We must let go of desires for unearned wealth, and for inappropriate sexual relationships – if these things take hold of our life, they become false gods. Yes, these things tempt us. But we have free will, and the more we choose the values of heaven, the more each one of us becomes a living image of Jesus Himself.

So what choices might we need to make? Remember, when it comes to any inheritance, it’s not your money. You might have had a certain expectation. Maybe the will-writer even told you they were leaving you something, but even then, treat it as an undeserved gift. Don’t let it possess you.

Are you angry with a deceased relative for not including you in their will? Let it go. It was never your money in the first place. Pray for their soul!

Are you angry with a living relative for not sharing a portion of their inheritance with you? Let it go. They have had their reward already. Pray for their conversion!

Are you angry because the executor of a will is being slow to give you your inheritance? Let it go. God will allow your portion to come to you at a time when you’ll need it. Don’t rush to law to sue for what is yours – write to the executor and explain the terms under which you will lend them your share of the inheritance for a reasonable period. Love and bless your adversary!

There again, perhaps you are arguing with other family members because you’re the one holding the lion’s share of the inheritance, and other members of your family feel hard done by. If so, you’ve received an undeserved gift. How much of that gift will you share with your extended family? The Lord who said “Freely you have received, freely give” is also warning you that no amount of money will give you security – the Christian paradox is that only through giving can we truly receive what we need.

Pope Francis, in his great letter on the Joy of Love, doesn’t say anything specific about wills and inheritance, but he does mention the dangers of consumerism. In this “buy what you want” age, we are tempted to only pursue relationships which satisfy us, to fear the economic consequences of having children, and to have unrealistic expectations of living a life free of responsibility for others. At worst, we lose the ability to be tender towards others and to recognise true beauty.

One last thought. If you’re fretting about a gift you haven’t received, give something away as soon as possible. If that feels too hard for you to do – how can you expect anyone else to give anything to you?

Reading Amoris Laetitia: all references are to paragraph numbers.

  • We are called to hard work: 23-26
  • The dangers of consumerism: 39-44, 127, 135

Family: What’s really important?

Two parents and three children silhouetted against a twilight skyHomily at St Philip Evans, for the 16th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Continuing our series on the Family, based on Amoris Laetitia.

Last week, I met a young mother who’d spent a year studying Catholic teaching on the family. I asked her what the one most important message was that Catholic preachers should share. Her answer? “The best way to love your children is to love your spouse.”

Today’s Bible readings lead us into the fraught area of family relationships. Martha is at odds with her sister, Mary, and tries to draw Jesus Himself into the conflict. They also remind us that God loves families. God’s unexpected promise to Abraham resulted in the birth of a son, Isaac, grandfather of the 12 children who would be the ancestors of the Israelites. Jesus was born to the family of Mary and Joseph, and befriended the household of another Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

In families, we can find amazing love. And in families, we will experience annoying strife. Martha falls into the trap of putting her own goals first – getting the housework done. Jesus points out that Mary has chosen what is truly valuable. In our own age, Pope Francis has written about family tensions and suggests how we can find joy. What he has written is especially important for relationships between husbands and wives, but much applies also to every group of family members who live under one roof.

Within families, we must use the words “please”, “thanks”, and “sorry” every day. There are no perfect families; but as we address together our limits, defects and imperfections, we grow in our ability to love and can hope that “the best is yet to come”.

One big question young people ask is why two people should bother to get married rather than just living together. Marriage is a declaration that two people wish to start a new social unit: independent of their parents but taking responsibility for each other. Marriage allows each spouse to declare in a public ceremony that they have found their partner to be worthy of unconditional love! More than that, there’s strong evidence that a couple is much more likely to stay together if the partners have made public promises to each other.

Pope Francis notes that lovers are looking for something permanent. Children and friends of married couples long for their love to endure. All humans have an instinct for sealing a permanent bond; for us as Christian believers, we see that such a vow is an image of God’s faithfulness to us. Even so, the Pope reminds us to be realistic: no human marriage can perfectly reflect the love of the Blessed Trinity.

It’s a good thing to grow old together, to care for one another’s needs. This needs a commitment to unselfishness. For many young people, this is a scary thought – if I make a lifelong promise, am I closing off my other options? Yes – but consider the alternative! If I’m not willing to make a lifelong promise, can I reasonably expect another person to always be there for me? No. Marriage isn’t always pleasurable, but there can be joy experienced even amid sorrow as couples deal with ups and downs, growing ever closer in friendship.

Pope Francis knows that the way we do family is changing. In past ages, it would have been normal for a husband to go out to work and make the big decisions, and for a wife to do all the housework. Now, the Pope notes, there’s a more equal sharing of responsibility, and better communication between husband and wife. And communication is key! Mary knew that the most important thing on that day was to sit and listen to Jesus. We too must make time to listen to God – but we must also take time to listen to the important people in our lives.

One great sadness for me as a priest comes when women speak with me about the ups and down of their married life. I often ask whether their husband would be willing to go on a marriage enrichment weekend – or if they are facing serious relationship problems, whether they have considered marriage counselling. The most common reply is “Oh no, my husband would never be willing to go to anything like that.” So just for a moment, I want to speak to the husbands present at this Mass:

As husbands, you have made a promise to love your wife. You cannot love your wife properly unless you take time to understand her needs. It’s natural for us as men to resist the idea that we need help with relationships. That little proud voice in our heads says: “Just give me time, I can figure it out!” But remember that Jesus, the perfect man, sacrificed his life for the Church. You, Christian husbands are called to put aside your pride whenever it gets in the way of making your marriage a great marriage. Men of God, I place before you a challenge: Before this day has ended, ask your wife whether she would like to go with you on a retreat for married couples. Or if you know there is some big unresolved issue between the two of you, ask her whether she would find it helpful to try marriage counselling. Husbands, the question you put to your wife today might just be the best one since you asked: “Will you marry me?”

In any important relationship, we must take time to deeply listen to one another. No matter how much you think you’re in the right, affirm the other person’s right to have their own perspective – indeed, welcome the fact that they see things differently. Don’t raise awkward ideas needlessly, or speak in a tone of voice which could cause offence – and deal with the most painful issues sensitively.

How did Jesus resolve this family dispute? He asked Martha: “What’s really important?” The young mother I met wanted husbands and wives to know “The best way to love your children is to love your spouse.” All of us are called to “love our neighbour”. So whatever is causing stress in your family right now, reflect on the Lord’s question: “What’s really important?” Choose your answer carefully, because you will be living with it for the rest of your life!

Further thoughts for this Blog and the Parish Bulletin:

Pope Francis reminds us that we should show affection and concern and concern for those we love – don’t regard the other person as a threat, or someone who needs to be proved wrong. Even something as simple as a glance can signal our care and concern; when this is not offered, when a person becomes “invisible”, they will act up, with a desire to be noticed! (On that note, I will make a pre-emptive apology. One of my personal weaknesses is tunnel vision – if I have ever walked past you in the supermarket without saying hello, please assume it’s because I was scanning the shelves for the next purchase, not because I noticed you and chose to blank you!)

We are called to be witnesses to the love of God and the goodness of marriage. Christians must be seen to be willing to lay down their lives for others, and forgive without condemning; parents do this instinctively.

Violence begets violence within families; each family should foster open and supportive relationships, good communication and shared activities. Broken families lose their ability to shield members from addictive temptations. We recognise the very difficult choices faced by single mothers in situations of poverty; we must not rush to criticise their life-choices but find ways to offer the healing message of the Gospel.

Migration disrupts or destroys families, especially when enforced by violence. The Church has a special call to work with migrants, and is especially concerned about Christians persecuted in the Middle East.

The Catholic Church offers useful resources to support marriage and family life in England and Wales: www.catholicfamily.org.uk – the American Bishops have some very useful resources too at www.foryourmarriage.org. If you are married to a person active in another Christian denomination, you will find support from other people who understand the joys and tensions of this situation at www.interchurchfamilies.org.uk.

If you are ready to go on a weekend which will enrich your marriage, WorldWide Marriage Encounter wwme.org.uk offers residential weekends and SmartLoving smartloving.org offers non-residential weekends or days. If you are feeling more ambitious and can devote six days, the Chemin Neuf community www.chemin-neuf.org.uk runs a “Cana Week” in South-West England each summer. Or if it’s simply not possible for you to go away at the moment, you can work through the REFOCCUS Marriage Enrichment programme from www.foccusinc.com at home.

If you are aware that there are more serious issues in your marriage which you need to address, Marriage Care can help: phone 0800 389 3801 for an appointment or visit www.marriagecare.org.uk. Retrouvaille www.retrouvaille.org is a mainly Catholic group offering retreats and day workshops for married couples in difficulty, and will be running a day in Hertfordshire on 16 September 2016. Finally, if you are not comfortable with the way your partner is treating you, but don’t know where else to turn, be aware that  there is a 24-hour National Domestic Violence Helpline which you can access on 0808 2000 247.

Reading Amoris Laetitia: all references are to paragraph numbers.

  • Marriages in difficulty: 38, 62, 231-252
  • Love in relationships: 89-119
  • Love in marriage: 27-29, 120-141
  • Passion, sexual violence, celibacy: 142-162
  • Violence, refugees, poverty 46, 49, 51

Life-Long Love

A baby, cradled by mother, cradled by fatherHomily at St Philip Evans, on Trinity Sunday, Year C.

Let’s talk about the family.

Over the last two years, there’s been a lot of talk about “family” in the Catholic Church. In October 2014 and again in October 2015, bishops and experts came together in Rome for two Synods – and before each Synod, great surveys were carried out concerning the reality of Catholic married life. Last month, the Pope’s reflections on the Synods were published, a document called Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love”.

Until now, I’ve said very little about this from the pulpit. I’ve been waiting for the dust to settle, and for our bishops and Pope Francis to set out “where we’re at”. Now is the right time, and over the next few months I’ll draw on a lot of ideas from the Pope’s document.

When I say the word “family”, do you automatically think of two parents with a small child? To be sure, raising children is an important part of family life, but families come in all shapes and sizes – those who have married may be widowed, separated, or suffering infertility. Some of us have never married – but we all come from families, belong to families, and are called to support family life. Even if life’s circumstances mean we are orphans, with no living family to call our own, parish is meant to become our “church family” – if you truly feel you are alone in life, do speak to me as your parish pastor so I can help you make connections in the church community.

Today is Trinity Sunday – the day when we celebrate that God is a family. God is love, and to borrow a phrase from Des Robertson, “We don’t do love alone.” God is love – if God were only one person, how could God be love? There’s nothing in our human experience quite like the God who is three-and-one, so we struggle to find the right language, but let me try.

The first person within God is the one we call “Father”, the begetter, the one who brings other life into being.

From the beginning of time – so early that there was no “previous” time when God was one Person alone – that love caused another Person to come forth. We call that second person the Word of God, the Word who took flesh and became Jesus, Son of Mary.

Before he died upon the Cross, Jesus spoke about a “Spirit of Truth” whom his Father would send. The Bible gives hints that this Spirit, the Holy Spirit, comes, we use the word “proceeds”, from the Father and the Son – in some mysterious way, the Spirit is the love which flows between them. The “Wisdom of God” in today’s reading from Proverbs is a hint towards both the Word and the Spirit who come from the Father and have always been with the Father.

Pope Francis sees in the Trinity an image of the family. First, a man marries a woman. The poetry in the Book of Genesis speaks of woman being made from flesh taken from the side of man – we can see a parallel with the way the Son comes from the substance of the Father. Then the love expressed between husband and wife causes a third person, a child, to come into being. The most important connection between the Trinity and a human family is that in each, love causes a new person to come into being.

The world around us now sees marriage as meaning “I want to be with the person who makes me happy”. What happens if that person is the same sex as yourself? What happens when the person who makes you happy isn’t the person you’re currently married to? Society has rewritten the rules to accommodate these situations.

Pope Francis has a different vision. For him, marriage isn’t about being with the person who makes you happy – it’s about raising the next generation. Every child has a right to be created by a husband and wife expressing their love for one another. Being husband and wife, they have already made a public promise to form a stable household ready to welcome children. The very best that we can want for that child is that he or she is raised by the two parents responsible for that child’s identity, in a home where each parent lives out self-sacrificing agape love for their child and their spouse.

Yes, of course, this doesn’t always happen. There are many orphans, absent parents, and marriages marked by the sad reality of infertility. When a child is conceived in unpromising circumstances, the Church can offer practical help for a mother wondering whether to keep it. But the vision of Christian marriage we want to pass on to the next generation is this: Before you have your own children, make a public promise to love your spouse in good times and in bad. Yes, in a committed family there are times of suffering, but perseverance leads to patience and to hope. Let your child be born to two parents utterly committed to life-long love. Isn’t that the kind of family you long to be part of?

Further thoughts for this Blog and the Parish Bulletin:

In a short sermon, it’s not always possible to cover every angle – and a sentence taken out of context can be badly misinterpreted. So when I say “don’t have children until you’ve made the commitment of marriage” that could be misinterpreted as a call to use contraception until you are married. For the record, I stand by the Church’s whole teaching and oppose sexual intercourse outside marriage, but I am merely choosing to emphasise one angle given the shortness of the homily. It took Pope Francis 325 paragraphs to cover everything!

In today’s homily (available through the parish website, with a link to catholicpreacher.wordpress.com) I make the point that marriage between a man and a woman deserves a privileged status because it has the power to bring new life into the world – it is meant to create a stable environment for the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of the next generation.

Modern technology allows two parents who could not naturally have a child, to create one in a laboratory. Pope Francis says we shouldn’t do that. We can try to make clever arguments about the destruction of “spare embryos”, possible genetic damage to the child conceived, or whether doing so is “natural” – but there are good counterarguments to these. What if we implanted every embryo? What if we did lots of animal testing to minimise the risk of genetic faults? What do we mean by natural – why is it OK to use medical technology to eliminate smallpox (a perfectly natural virus) and to correct disability but not to make a child by technological means?

Same-sex couples also have strong desires to create a baby which is made from both of them. Already, there are many cases where a woman donates an egg which is fertilised by donor sperm and then implanted in her partner’s womb; male couples have to resort to surrogate mothers. Doing so is arduous and requires a certain amount of self-sacrificing love. We’re not quite at the stage where a man can have one of his cells transformed into an egg, or a woman can have her genes fashioned into artificial sperm, but medical science is on the brink of making these techniques workable. If “family” is about raising the next generation, what if technology allows different kinds of couples to beget offspring in situations inconceivable before the 21st Century?

Ultimately, our Church leaders say “no” to test-tube babies because God gave clear instructions: a husband shall join with his wife, and they should be fruitful. Jesus himself quoted that part of the Old Testament, giving it even greater authority. Even though the sacred authors didn’t dream of our scientific abilities in the time when the Bible was written, we trust that God, who is all-wise and lives outside time, chose the words of Scripture to be relevant for all ages. Creating a new human life is not like any other practical problem – is is a sacred act, because it is the most God-like thing a human couple can undertake. As followers of Jesus, if we have chosen to live our lives in obedience to God’s commands, we have to accept that if we don’t receive the gift of our own child the natural way, we cannot receive that gift at all.

With this in mind, you may wish to re-read today’s Second Reading about sufferings leading to patience and then to hope; today’s Gospel challenges us to accept the truth which comes from God and is made clear by the Holy Spirit.

What help is there for Catholics who want to be faithful to the Church’s Teaching but suffer infertility within marriage? There are doctors and other healthcare professionals who can help maximise the human body’s natural fertility. You can learn more about this by visiting www.fertilitycare.net or lifefertilitycare.co.uk, or Googling the term “NaPro”.

Reading Amoris Laetitia: all references are to paragraph numbers.

  • The creativity of the Trinity is reflected in marriage: 10, 11, 71, 314.
  • Marriage, of a man and woman open to children, is God’s plan: 8, 9, 13.
  • The family is special because it produces the next generation: 14, 52, 53.
  • Why no test-tube babies? 56, 81.
  • Infertile couples – why it is still meaningful for them to marry: 80.
  • Adoption: 82.


Holy Matrimony

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

Two wedding rings around a gold crossThere’s a story about a traveller lost in the Irish countryside, who pulls up alongside a farmer and asks the way to Tipperary. “Ah,” says the farmer, “If I were trying to go to Tipperary, I wouldn’t be starting from here!”

The Gospel we’ve just heard touches on the sensitive and often painful subject of divorce. It’s a reality we can’t avoid in Church, because it’s a subject Jesus didn’t avoid in his preaching and teaching. Even the language our Lord chose is challenging – “anyone who divorces one partner and marries another is guilty of adultery”. Why would Jesus teach such a thing? To understand this, we have to understand the big picture of Christian Marriage, and I want to address my words today especially to those teenagers and young adults among us – you who are not yet married but are considering your future. If you are not such a person, then I offer you these words as wisdom for you to pass on to the young people in your lives. But before I offer you this advice – my “Directions to Tipperary” – I should first speak to those among us who wish they were not starting from here.

Many among us will have known the pain of a failed relationship. I want to remind you that simply being divorced against your will, or even agreeing to a divorce to settle the finances of a past relationship, is not in itself a sin. A Catholic who is merely divorced is not automatically barred from Holy Communion. As for a Catholic who enters a new civil marriage without the Church annulling their previous marriage, I have no power to soften the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel, but I do echo the words of recent Popes who thank you for your faithfulness to attending Mass while refraining from receiving Holy Communion. Pope Francis has recently acted to make it simpler to pursue an annulment, and I am always willing to make an appointment to speak to anyone who wants to discuss their marital situation. Perhaps the Bishops meeting in Rome this month will find further ways to extend the mercy of Christ, but whatever the Church does will have to honour the very difficult teaching present in today’s Gospel.

And now, my message for our young people.

My dear young friends, have no doubt that God loves each one of you and has a plan for your life. Most of you will be called by God to enter a state of Holy Matrimony. And I use such old fashioned language rather than the word “Marriage” because what the Church calls “Marriage” and what the society around us now calls “Marriage” are two very different things. I want to share with you today, God’s vision for Holy Matrimony.

How would you like to have one person in your life whose top priority was your well-being? Someone who would always be loyal to you, no matter how you offend them? Someone who would work to help you in good times and in bad? Someone who would always tell you that you are loved and cherished, even when tired or distracted? Someone who will forgive you and take you back however you might fail them?

God would like you to have such a partner in life. But there’s a catch. For you to have someone like that as a partner, you must be that partner to someone. And that’s quite demanding!

What sort of parents would you like to have? Two who would always work hard to make up a quarrel as soon as possible? Two who always pull together, not apart? Two who never force you to choose between them?

Once again, do unto others as you would have them do unto you – if you want to have such a parent, you must be such a parent.

I can’t imagine a child wanting their parents’ relationship to fail rather than be healed. I can imagine a person wishing to try a series of different relationships rather than enjoy the blessings and challenges which come with an exclusive partnership. But serial relationships come with a price. You know how a piece of sellotape loses its sticking power if you use it two or three times? In the same way, the more relationships you allow to reach a very intimate level, the less depth and freshness each one will have.

When Jesus read the Book of Genesis, he saw in it a clear message from God-the-Father that God’s plan was for a man and a woman together to become one flesh, and to form a family unit, a unit which no earthly power should dare to divide.

If what Jesus teaches is true, it has serious consequences.

We’re not free to define marriage as we see fit. Holy Matrimony can only exist between a man and a woman.

We’re not free to declare that a marriage has ended. Holy Matrimony is founded on a pledge to be faithful until death, in sickness, poverty, and ‘for worse’. Each partner in Holy Matrimony has promised, in advance, to be faithful to their spouse even if that spouse should fall into a 20-year coma or run off and abandon them.

Nor should we try before marriage anything we should keep as a gift to our partner on our wedding night. Jesus doesn’t speak about that in today’s Gospel, but he does warn us to avoid lust, and St Paul writes at greater length about the kind of purity which is expected of Jesus’ followers.

“Wait a minute, God, what business is it of yours? It’s my body, after all.”

Actually, no. St Paul says that if we are Christians, our bodies belong to the Lord and we must use our bodies to give glory to God. Today’s Second Reading reminds us that even Jesus Himself couldn’t avoid suffering when He was obedient to His Father’s Will. We are free to say that we don’t want to do God’s will. We are not free to pretend that God hasn’t made the laws which Jesus shows us in today’s Gospel – and the same God who made the laws knows better than any one of us the agonies which take place in the human heart when we’re drawn to any relationship outside those laws.

God loves us, and makes these laws for our own protection. Above all, God doesn’t want a single human being to be a tool used for someone else’s pleasure and then abandoned. St John Paul II wrote at length about how terrible it was for one human being to merely use another, part of the writings we now call the Theology of the Body.

So my dear young friends, God’s plan for you is that, unless you are called to the single life, you should enter a state of Holy Matrimony. This is not easy; it requires you to be a living sign of how faithful Jesus is to us – and the Lord will never abandon us in His Church, no matter how we might fail and sin. Be the committed partner you want your husband or wife to be for you. Be the loving parent who embodies the very best of what your parents are for you. Be a servant of God who follows God’s plan for Holy Matrimony, not your own – and God’s blessing will go with you always.

  • You can read my more extended reflection on Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality.
  • Lots of resources for Supporting Marriage are available online.
  • Thanks to Kaye Smith for first showing me the ‘sellotape’ analogy.

You CAN Choose Your Family!

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Feast Feast of the Holy Family, Year B.Four quadrants: a dining table; a stylized family; a dating couple; a rosary

The Seven Word Sermon: Families eat together. Be together. Pray. Date.

They say you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.

They’re wrong!

Now, it’s true that we can’t choose the ancestors we’re born to. The parents we’ve got are the parents we’ve got.

Until recently, we had no control over the children born to us. Modern medicine tempts us with the possibility of designer babies – but because we recognise that every child is a gift from God, we understand that it would be a sin to reject any child once conceived. (There are other moral problems with IVF, too, which effectively rule out pre-selection of eggs or sperm.)

But in one very important respect, we do choose our family. Every new household is based on the choice which two people make, to come together for life. Usually, in our Western culture, that’s a totally free choice made by two people who have fallen in love, though sometimes it’s for the sake of a child conceived before a couple have made a deeper commitment. Some of us come from other traditions, where marriages are arranged by our extended family.

It doesn’t matter whether that first choice was made by our parents, our passions, or our progeny. The choice that matters is the daily choice to be family.

In today’s Scriptures, Abraham sets out for unknown territory, trusting only in God. Mary and Joseph walk in obedience to God’s law. Every marriage is a journey into the unknown future; God’s law for marriage, given in the opening chapters of the Bible, is that husband and wife must cleave to each other and become one flesh – one mind, one heart, one family. During the next few months, our bishops will invite us to reflect on family life as a call, a journey and a mission, in preparation for the second phase of the Vatican Synod on Family Life.

Too often, when the church talks about family, we focus on those parts of our Catholic faith which are full of don’ts.

We fail to see that behind these don’ts lies a rich and positive vision of marriage. At heart, it is about two very simple choices: the choices to spend time with one another, and with God.

So today I am going to ask four questions about what you do do as a family. Here goes…

Do you have a dining table?

If you don’t have a dining table, it’s not easy to bring a family together around a meal. Without a dining table, it’s easy to slip into habits where each family member eats at different times, in front of a telly or tablet. A living room tends to form a semi-circle around the television. Only in the dining room does a family form a full circle focussed on each other. This is so important that I know of some churches which have helped struggling members to buy a dining table!

Does this matter to God? It’s worth pondering that our Catholic Church began around a dining table!


Do you make time to be family together?

A dining table on its own won’t transform a family. In a world of after-school clubs and sports teams, where each child wants to be part of something, it’s easy to fall into the trap of spending every evening being Mum’s Taxi. If you don’t plan to spend time together as a family each week, it won’t happen. How many Hollywood films fall into the cliché of the Dad who’s working so hard to provide for his family, that he never spends time with them? Don’t be like the proverbial boy who asked what his Dad’s hourly rate was so he could buy some of his time! If spending family time together is important, that means that a little work time, a little income, and a little space for personal pursuits must be sacrificed. When, during the week, will every member of your family be in the same place for a meal or some shared activity? The earlier this is built into the life of a family, the easier it will be to embed it.


Do you pray together as a family?

If your husband or wife is also a Catholic, or another kind of Christian, rejoice! You have a life-partner who can pray for you and pray with you! If you don’t already pray for one another, then I encourage you, for a minute when you get up or go to bed, ask God to bless and protect your spouse in the day to come. If you do already pray, but not together, why not make it your New Year’s resolution to give this a try? Whatever kind of Christian your husband or wife is, you could at least pray the Lord’s Prayer, and yes, it is OK to say the bit about “the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory” if your other half is more comfortable with that. (The reason we usually drop it as Catholics is that Bible scholars say it isn’t original to Jesus, but the way they always ended prayers in those days.) Some couples become very comfortable speaking to God informally in each other’s presence; for others, it might be easier to stick to set prayers. What matters is to find a way to pray together.

If your partner isn’t a believing Christian, I acknowledge that things are harder. If you are in a marriage recognised by the Catholic Church, you will have made a promise to bring up your children as Catholic. When they are young, this is as simple as making the sign of the Cross on their forehead at bedtime, and asking Jesus to protect them. As they grow older you can teach them the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and gather them for one decade of the rosary before bedtime. Their godparents or the Catholic School can teach them some useful things, but only you can show them how to make prayer a normal and natural part of family life.

There’s a lot worth pondering in that old saying, The family that prays together, stays together!


Do you date your husband or wife?

Sometimes, when a married person comes to me for counsel, I ask them, “When was the last time you went on a date with your husband or wife?” If they’ve had children for any length of time, they often struggle to remember. Even if all their children have grown up and flown the nest, they often haven’t got back into the habit of enjoying each other’s company. I’ve got news for you. In marriage, dating is not an optional extra!

Remember, you can choose your family. You can choose your husband or wife! You can choose them each day of your life! You can choose to say, “I love you” in whichever way works best for you! And as often as you can carve out the time, you can choose to go on a date! If something is important, we choose to make time for it – and at the heart of every marriage is your declaration that nothing is more important than your significant other.

Before I finish, a word to you who do not have a life-partner. What I have just said may seem less relevant – but if you have living family members, you can also choose to strengthen your relationship with them. You can apply the questions I have just asked to the way you engage with your parish, since the church community is meant to work as an extended family – if we choose to make it work. I would also ask you to support the married couples among your extended family and friends – perhaps even by offering to babysit so they can go on a date night!

So this weekend, I invite each one of us to be mindful of the Catholic Church’s positive vision of family. Building a true family is not easy.

  • It needs a dining table.
  • It needs time spent being family together.
  • It needs you to pray together as a family.
  • It needs married couples to take time for romance.

God says you can choose your friends, but you MUST choose your family. God’s right!

Are you a troublemaker? And if not, why not?

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 2 of 4 in our series, The Challenges of Following Jesus.

Are you a troublemaker? And if not, why not?

Well… aren’t we Christians supposed to be nice? We help people. We turn the other cheek when people offend us. If politicians pass laws we don’t like, or a producer puts on a play mocking Our Lord, wouldn’t we be tolerant and say “God forgives, why cause trouble?”

And yet… we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. We call them saints.

Top: St Thomas More, Shahbaz Bhatti; Bottom: Esther; Venerable Margaret Sinclair

To be sure, some were recognised as saints because of the depth of their prayer-life.

Many were martyred for simply admitting they believed in Jesus.

Others founded religious orders to help people who were sick or in need of education.

But then… there are the troublemakers!

In our First Reading, the Prophet Jeremiah had been thrown into a pit for preaching God’s word.

We also find, in the Old Testament, the story of Esther. She was the one who, when the Prime Minister got permission to massacre Jews, spoke up to the King and said: “excuse me, why are you allowing the persecution of my people?”

St John the Baptist preached about many moral issues, but was executed because he said to the King: “It is against God’s law for you to marry your brother’s wife.”

St Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury because he irritated Henry II to the extent that the King muttered “who will rid me of this turbulent priest?”

St Catherine of Siena had the courage to tell the Pope to go back to Rome at the time when the Popes had taken refuge in France, at Avignon.

St Thomas More refused to accept King Henry VIII’s wishes above God’s law, and was beheaded.

Venerable Margaret Sinclair left school, aged 14, to work in a French polisher’s in Edinburgh. When the Duke of York visited, workers were docked a penny to pay for a new pavement. As trade union rep, Margaret led the protest – why does a duke deserve a pavement if the workers don’t? Aged 23, she entered a convent, caught tuberculosis, and died two years later.

Blessed Bernhard Lichtenberg died in 1943 while being transported to Dachau after organising protests outside concentration camps and speaking against anti-Semitism.

Blessed Bishop Vilmos Apor of Hungary opened his bishop’s residence as a centre for refugees when Russian soldiers invaded. He was shot on Good Friday 1945 while pleading with drunken Russian soldiers not to take some of the women refugees for their own purposes.

Mr Shahbaz Bhatti was the only Christian member of the cabinet of Pakistan when he was assassinated in March 2011 for criticising his country’s Islamic blasphemy laws. A year later, hundreds of Catholics across Pakistan marked the anniversary by holding rallies and calling for Bhatti to be recognised as a saint.

These witnesses show us what it can mean to be faithful to the teaching of Jesus.

Pope Francis, preaching in May this year, noted that everyone who follows Jesus will enjoy many good things but will also face persecution. Like Jesus, our only road to holiness leads to the Cross. The Pope warned that “when a Christian has no difficulties in life – when everything is fine, everything is beautiful – something is wrong.” If we have truly encountered Jesus, something “goes deep within and changes us. And the spirit of the world does not tolerate it, will not tolerate it, and therefore, there is persecution.”

“Think of Mother Teresa”, said Pope Francis. “What does the spirit of the world say of Mother Teresa? ‘Ah, Blessed Teresa is a beautiful woman, she did a lot of good things for others …’. The spirit of the world never says that the Blessed Teresa spent, every day, many hours, in adoration … Never! It reduces Christian activity to doing social good.”

In this way, our Pope reminds us that what the world admires about saints is not what we should admire most about saints. The world notices their good works. We are called to recognise their dedication to God and their willingness to carry the Cross.

If we wish to become saints, our first calling is not to imitate their works, but to ask God to inspire us with the same Holy Spirit which inspired them. The gifts promised to us when we were confirmed – among them wisdom, understanding, courage, and respect for God – are offered to us precisely so that we can become God’s troublemakers in this world. Because we are baptised, we share in the work of Christ the Prophet, the one who speaks out about what is wrong in the world around us, even when that offends our family members or friends.

Our Lord himself warns us that his message will result in division, turning family members against each other. Does Jesus want to destroy families? Absolutely not! Yet, it can happen that one member of a family “catches fire” with faith, while another does not. In my own family, I chose to become a Catholic, and then a priest, even though my parents had grave reservations. Fortunately, they have now come to terms with my decision – but I would have become a priest whatever the consequences, because I had already made a decision, in my heart, to do whatever God asked of me, whatever the price might be.

Since I announced the news that I was to move parish, a few of you have commented that my preaching duing my time with you has been “challenging”. Yes, I will plead guilty to that. I always try to follow one simple rule. I aim for the sermons that pass my lips to never be more challenging than the teaching of Jesus himself. It is in this spirit in which I ask you to reflect on today’s Gospel and ask yourself: “Am I a troublemaker?” If you’re not, don’t worry, it’s never too late to begin!

Pictured, clockwise from top left: St Thomas More (statue at Chelsea Embankment, London – author’s own photo); Shahbaz Bhatti (from Wikipedia, under Fair Use provisions); Venerable Margaret Sinclair (Catholic Online); Queen Esther (Sweet Media, licensed CC-BY-SA-3.0)