Believe, Beloved (Morning Edition)

Homily at St Philip Evans for Easter Day 2017 – Second Reading from I Corinthians.

“Get rid of the yeast of evil and wickedness, having only the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

There’s been a lot of talk about sincerity and truth lately. Like yeast, fake news generates a lot of hot air. Indeed, only last week, Facebook published some guidelines to help us tell whether a news story is true or false. Three of them are helpful to us not only on the Internet, but for life in general.

  • Can we trust the person sharing the news?
  • Does the news include good evidence that it’s true, and few warning signs that it might be false?
  • Is anyone else independently reporting the same news?

We’ve just heard a claim that Jesus has risen from the dead – his tomb is empty, the stone has been rolled away and Mary Magdalen has had a conversation with him!

The news was written by a man called Matthew, a tax collector who became a follower of Jesus – and one of the friends who ran away when he was crucified.

Is anyone else reporting the same news? Yes, Peter saw the Risen Jesus too! We have just heard an account of him speaking to Cornelius – a Roman soldier – about how many people met Jesus after he rose from the dead!

We do find that the accounts given by all these people don’t match up exactly. But that shouldn’t worry us too much. When eyewitnesses agree 100% about what they claim they have seen, that’s often a sign they have colluded to make up a story. Real witness make mistakes about details!

There’s another way of testing the evidence, too. If Jesus is really alive, he should be touching people’s lives even today.

On Good Friday, I saw a post on Facebook about a woman called Natalie. 10 months ago she suffered a brain injury which had life-changing consequences: vertigo, intolerance of light and an inability to read. After coming forward for prayer she was completely healed! Two days later she was still suffering no symptoms at all!

Good news or fake news? Let’s apply the tests.

Do I trust the person sharing the news? I do, because I know him personally. His name is Andrew Fava and he belongs to a Catholic community, Cor et Lumen Christi, with a particular gift for praying for healing.

How good is the evidence? The post included a picture of Andrew alongside a beaming Natalie. I know that this community is careful not to make premature claims about healing – waiting two days to see if the effects are lasting is a good practice.

Is anyone else reporting the same news? Not specifically about Natalie, but about Jesus’ power to heal – certainly! At Lourdes, and when saints are canonized, the Catholic Church has a formal process to investigate miracles and establish that the claims are credible.

Still not convinced? You can check out the evidence yourself! Members of the Cor et Lumen Christi community will be running a healing mission here in Cardiff in September.

After listening to Peter’s testimony, the Roman soldier Cornelius chose to be baptised. He accepted Peter’s message that “all who believe in Jesus will have their sins forgiven through his name”. In a few moments, I will take the Easter water, blessed last night, and sprinkle all of us with it. Before you receive the water, I will ask you to renew your baptismal promises. But as promises go, these ones sound strange. I will ask, three times, “Do you believe?” and you will answer “I do!” What kind of promise is this?

To believe simply means “to put your trust in”. What I am asking about is not the ideas in your head, but the choices in your life. Do you trust in God the Father, who created heaven and earth? Do you trust in Jesus, who rose from the dead and has opened for you the path to heaven? Do you trust in the Holy Spirit, to live in you and produce a fountain of living water? Do you trust in the Catholic Church, to teach the truth about God and about right living?

When you leave Mass today, you will be handed three invitations. One is for a free showing of a movie this Friday. Another is to come to the Celebrate conference in a fortnight’s time. The third is to a special confession service in Splott next Sunday – Divine Mercy Sunday. Nearly one hundred years ago, the Risen Jesus appeared many times to a Polish nun, Sr Fautina Kowalska, and asked that the Sunday after Easter be kept as a special celebration of his mercy. Jesus promised special blessings to anyone who goes to confession on that day and who venerates the Divine Mercy Image. What is that image? It is Jesus with rays representing baptism and Holy Communion flowing from his breast, and an inscription: “Jesus, I trust in you!”

Often, good news is only a beginning. It contains great hope, but the promise takes time to come about.

So they have discovered a wonder-drug with potential to beat some killer disease? Fantastic! But it will be years before the safety tests are complete and we can benefit from it.

So the reviewer is raving about the best film ever – but that’s no good to me if I can’t get to the cinema to watch it.

This morning we celebrate that Jesus really rose from the dead, and heaven is for real – though we do not yet live in the Promised Land. Mary Magdalen was given a glimpse but had to tell the disciples that they would later “see Jesus in Galilee”.

Jesus said he was the gate for the sheep through which we must enter, the true vine to which we must stay connected, the bread of life we must eat to enter heaven.

How can we tell if this is true news? If it is true that Jesus has overcome death and is alive right now, he can make good on his promise! He can touch your life, brighten your darkness, quicken your heart and stir your soul!

The word “believe” shares its origins with the word “beloved”. Because we’re loved by another person, we can place our trust in that person to be there for us – we can believe in our beloved. We can place our faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be there for us, because on Easter Sunday morning, we learned that the Father raised Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. We know that he is truly in Heaven sitting at the right of the Father. We only know that he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven because of the testimony of those first Christians, who paid with their lives for insisting that the news was true.

Christ is Risen.

Heaven is open for business.

Jesus can even heal people today!

That’s not fake news – it’s good news! Alleluia!

Believe, Beloved

Homily at St Philip Evans at the Easter Vigil 2017 – readings from Exodus, Baruch and Ezekiel.

Tonight is all about trust. Who do you trust?

Do you trust what you read on the Internet?

Last week, Facebook published some guidelines to help us tell whether a news story is true or false. Three of them are helpful to us not only on the Internet, but for life in general.

  • Can we trust the person sharing the news?
  • Does the news include good evidence that it’s true, and few warning signs that it might be false?
  • Is anyone else independently reporting the same news?

We’ve just heard a claim that Jesus has risen from the dead – his tomb is empty, the stone has been rolled away and Mary Magdalen has had a conversation with him!

The news was written by a man called Matthew, a tax collector who became a follower of Jesus – and one of the friends who ran away when he was crucified.

Is anyone else reporting the same news? Yes, Mark, Luke and John, who wrote Gospels. Peter, who wrote letters. And Paul, who wasn’t there at the time but met the Risen Jesus later!

We do find that the accounts given by all these people don’t match up exactly. But that shouldn’t worry us too much. When eyewitnesses agree 100% about what they claim they have seen, that’s often a sign they have colluded to make up a story. Real witness make mistakes about details!

There’s another way of testing the evidence, too. If Jesus is really alive, he should be touching people’s lives even today.

Yesterday, I saw a post on Facebook about a woman called Natalie. 10 months ago she suffered a brain injury which had life-changing consequences: vertigo, intolerance of light and an inability to read. After coming forward for prayer she was completely healed! Two days later she was still suffering no symptoms at all!

Good news or fake news? Let’s apply the tests.

Do I trust the person sharing the news? I do, because I know him personally. His name is Andrew Fava and he belongs to a Catholic community, Cor et Lumen Christi, with a particular gift for praying for healing.

How good is the evidence? The post included a picture of Andrew alongside a beaming Natalie. I know that this community is careful not to make premature claims about healing – waiting two days to see if the effects are lasting is a good practice.

Is anyone else reporting the same news? Not specifically about Natalie, but about Jesus’ power to heal – certainly! At Lourdes, and when saints are canonized, the Catholic Church has a formal process to investigate miracles and establish that the claims are credible.

Still not convinced? You can check out the evidence yourself! Members of the Cor et Lumen Christi community will be running a healing mission here in Cardiff in September.

What other claims must we examine tonight? Our first reading claimed that God’s Chosen People crossed a sea with dry feet, but their enemies were drowned. Our second reading claimed that God is offering us a drink from the fountain of wisdom, granting life and peace for ever. Our third reading claimed that God wishes to gather a new people to himself and cleanse them from sin.

What are we celebrating tonight? In a word, Jesus. It was Jesus who was baptised and asked us to follow his example, so that we might escape everlasting death by passing through water. It was Jesus who promised to give us living water which would well up within each one of us. It was Jesus who sent his apostles to baptise all nations so that a new community of God’s friends may be formed, and their sins be forgiven.

In a few moments, I will bless Easter water and sprinkle all of us with it. Before you receive the water, I will ask you to renew your baptismal promises. But as promises go, these ones sound strange. I will ask, three times, “Do you believe?” and you will answer “I do!” What kind of promise is this?

To believe simply means “to put your trust in”. What I am asking about is not the ideas in your head, but the choices in your life. Do you trust in God the Father, who created heaven and earth? Do you trust in Jesus, who rose from the dead and has opened for you the path to heaven? Do you trust in the Holy Spirit, to live in you and produce a fountain of living water? Do you trust in the Catholic Church, to teach the truth about God and about right living?

I would dare to go one step further, and ask tonight whether you trust in my leadership of this parish. Lent is over, and we have restored our six banners of the “expectations” I have preached about in recent months. I put it to you that if you trust the teachings of Jesus and the Catholic Church, you will choose to worship, connect, explore, volunteer, invest, and invite others to be part of what we are doing here.

When you leave Mass tonight, you will be handed three invitations. One is for a free showing of a movie this Friday. Another is to come to the Celebrate conference in a fortnight’s time. The third is to a special confession service in Splott next Sunday – Divine Mercy Sunday. Nearly one hundred years ago, the Risen Jesus appeared many times to a Polish nun, Sr Fautina Kowalska, and asked that the Sunday after Easter be kept as a special celebration of his mercy. Jesus promised special blessings to anyone who goes to confession on that day and who venerates the Divine Mercy Image. What is that image? It is Jesus with rays representing baptism and Holy Communion flowing from his breast, and an inscription: “Jesus, I trust in you!”

Often, good news is only a beginning. It contains great hope, but the promise takes time to come about.

So they have discovered a wonder-drug with potential to beat some killer disease? Fantastic! But it will be years before the safety tests are complete and we can benefit from it.

So the reviewer is raving about the best film ever – but that’s no good to me if I can’t get to the cinema to watch it.

Tonight we celebrate that Jesus really rose from the dead, and heaven is for real – though we do not yet live in the Promised Land. Mary Magdalen was given a glimpse but had to tell the disciples that they would later “see Jesus in Galilee”.

Jesus said he was the gate for the sheep through which we must enter, the true vine to which we must stay connected, the bread of life we must eat to enter heaven.

How can we tell if this is true news? If it is true that Jesus has overcome death and is alive right now, he can make good on his promise! He can touch your life, brighten your darkness, quicken your heart and stir your soul!

The word “believe” shares its origins with the word “beloved”. Because we’re loved by another person, we can place our trust in that person to be there for us – we can believe in our beloved. We can place our faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be there for us, because on Easter Sunday morning, we learned that the Father raised Jesus from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. We know that he is truly in Heaven sitting at the right of the Father. We only know that he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven because of the testimony of those first Christians, who paid with their lives for insisting that the news was true.

Christ is Risen.

Heaven is open for business.

Jesus can even heal people today!

That’s not fake news – it’s good news! Alleluia!

Up!

Homily at St Philip Evans on Ascension Sunday, Year B.Christ, clothed in red and purple, ascending

The Seven Word Sermon: Jesus, who ascended, said “Lay on hands!”

We believe in One Lord, Jesus Christ, who ascended into heaven.

It’s part of the Creed. We say it every Sunday. But I wonder, if you stop to think about it, doesn’t it seem a little farcical?

Jesus, in his Risen Body, lifting off from terra firma, gliding gracefully upwards, until he disappears into a cloud?

Surely some skeptical part of your mind is resisting this idea. And that part will probably have one of three objections. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t. Or: he didn’t.

Now, common sense tells us that human bodies simply don’t lift off heavenward, so that will push us towards thinking Jesus couldn’t have done it. But let’s remember who we are talking about. Jesus Christ, born of a Virgin, who healed the sick, raised the dead, calmed storms, turned water into wine, fed crowds from a single picnic basket, and who has just spent the last 40 days appearing to his friends in a death-proof body. Couldn’t is a word we must use cautiously when it applies to Him! Our instincts are quick to believe that Jesus can do something when a person we care about is sick. We pray to Jesus for a cure, and then we are very ready to blame him for failing to deliver a miracle. So we end up blaming Jesus for not answering our prayers, while at the same time doubting that he has the power to do something no less spectacular. If Jesus can glow with light at the Transfiguration and rise from the dead at Easter, ascending into heaven 40 days later shouldn’t be too tricky.

There again, you might read the story of the Ascension and think, “Jesus wouldn’t have done that. Not his style. Too showy.” But how can you possibly know what Jesus would or wouldn’t have done? Only a person who knows Jesus really well could make a decision like that. And the only way to get to know Jesus that well is to meet him in the pages of the Bible. St Jerome once said that “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ”, and that’s why we offer a monthly Bible Study in our parish Call to Question group and are promoting monthly Scripture Saturdays which start next month in Bridgend. We can’t rely on second-hand things we have heard about Jesus. We can’t rely on our inner light, which tells us more about ourself, than about Christ dwelling within us. The best place to meet Jesus is in the Gospels.

So we know that Jesus could have bodily ascended into heaven, if that was part of God’s plan. We can only find out whether Jesus would have done something like that by getting to know Him through the Bible. And in today’s readings from Scripture, we are told that Jesus did ascend into Heaven. St Mark’s Gospel simply says ‘he was taken up into heaven’. St Luke, in his opening chapter of Acts, says he disappeared into a cloud. Even St Paul refers to Jesus ascending into heaven. In one of his earliest writings, the First Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul makes it clear that the first Christians were waiting eagerly to see Jesus re-appear in the clouds in the same way he had departed. Slowly and painfully, in the later books of the New Testament, they were beginning to realise this might not happen during their lifetime. We can’t claim that Jesus didn’t ascend into heaven without saying that all these authors in the Bible got it wrong.

So, fight back that attack of common sense that’s getting in the way, and face facts. Jesus ascended into heaven. OK. Why did He do that?

NOT because heaven is a place in the sky. As Catholics, we believe that Our Lord and Our Lady have their bodies in heaven, right now, so whatever we mean by ‘Heaven’, it is a dimension where both bodies and souls can exist. But it was not necessary for Jesus to fly through the air to get there. At Emmaus, he simply vanished in front of the Apostles. Heaven is ‘somewhere’, but not the kind of somewhere we can reach with an aeroplane or a space-rocket.

Rather, on this day, Our Lord made a dramatic gesture to show that the work of God had been passed on to his apostles and disciples. And the work he passed on included the tasks of healing bodies and souls. God cares about our bodies. He wants our bodies to be healthy. Jesus said: “Believers will lay their hands on the sick, who will recover.”

Watch out! That same bit of common sense which laughs at the idea of Jesus ascending is now going to rubbish another idea. What should you do if you fall sick? Ask a Christian believer to come and lay hands on you and pray. But we don’t do that, do we?

If someone is really sick, close to death, we call a priest and ask for the Last Rites. We take comfort from knowing that a person has died with the Church’s blessing and their sins forgiven through the Sacrament for Anointing.

If someone is ill, but able to travel, we might take them to Lourdes, where Our Lady did ask that people should come in procession.

If someone is less severely ill, we write their name into the Bidding Prayers at Mass and perhaps ask the priest to say a prayer for them too.

These are not bad things to do. But they are not what Jesus told us to do. Rather, Jesus said that people who believe in Him will lay their hands on the sick, who will recover. Elsewhere, the Letter of St James says that if a community elder, a priest, does so, the person’s sins will also be forgiven.

If the god you believe in couldn’t heal someone through the laying-on of hands, your god is too small.

If the god you believe in wouldn’t heal someone through the laying-on of hands, your god is not the one Jesus was speaking about.

If the god you believe in didn’t heal someone through the laying-on of hands, have you given God a chance? We are not told that every Christian will have this gift. We are not told that the gift of healing will be granted every single time. But we are told, pretty clearly, that when there is illness in the Church community, the right thing to do is to ask a Christian believer to lay their hands on the sick person, and Jesus also teaches us to be persistent in our prayer.

But the very idea of it! Can you even imagine what our parish community would be like if every time we faced illness, we asked another parishioner to lay hands on us and ask God for the gift of healing? Isn’t that a silly idea, as silly as the very thought of Jesus’ own body disappearing up into the clouds like a Chinese lantern?

I believe in One Lord, Jesus Christ, who ascended into heaven.

 

For further reading:

  • A story of healing experienced through my own ministry as a priest.
  • Contrary to popular belief, Yuri Gagarin did not say that he had failed to find God when he orbited the Earth.
  • Some claim that sober saints such as Francis and Teresa had the gift of levitating too!

Looking back on the Year of Faith

Official logo for the Year of Faith - a stylized ship with the letters IHS (Jesus) as the sail surrounded by a Eucharistic circleAs the Year of Faith closes on the Feast of Christ the King 2013, I am making available here links to some talks I have given to mark the Year of Faith. They were first given at St John Lloyd Parish intended for an audience of practicing Catholics, then some of the talks were slightly adapted to be more accessible to an audience including non-Catholics and given again at the Cornerstone at St David’s.

The links here are for narrated Powerpoints of the St John Lloyd versions of the talks.

We Believe in a God who Speaks, covering the Bible, Tradition and private revelation.

We believe in Faith and in Sciencefrom my perspective as a Catholic Priest with a PhD in astrophysics.

We believe in the Virgin Mothercovering the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Birth and Assumption of Our Lady.

We Believe in One Church of Christ, covering the relationship between the Catholic Church and other Christian communities.

We Believe in One Catholic and Apostolic Church, on the role of St Peter and the Apostles and how this led to the modern leadership of the Catholic Church.

We Believe in a Suffering Saviour, on whether God can suffer and if so, how this should affect our way of praying.

We Believe in the Holy Spirit, on how we know there is a Holy Spirit, why we celebrate Confirmation, and how we can develop a prayerful relationship with the Spirit of God.

We Believe in the Blessed Sacrament, on why we claim that bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, and how worship of Jesus in the form of the Blessed Sacrament has developed in the Catholic Church over the centuries.

We Believe in a God Who Heals, looking at the phenomenon of healing in the Christian Church historically and today.

Humble Yourself in the eyes of the Lord, and He Will Raise You Up

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The 22nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 4 of 4 in our series, The Challenges of Following Jesus.The word Rejected, as a faded red stamp

Have you ever had the experience of Not Being Picked for something you really wanted to be involved in? I have.

At school, I was the tubby kid who was always the last pick for any sports team. I didn’t mind that – I didn’t particularly want to be running around the field anyway. But when the school set up a School Council, and I wasn’t picked for that, it smarted. So I kindly but firmly pointed out that it wasn’t fair for one person to represent the whole Sixth Form – there should be reps for upper and lower sixth. The staff agreed! They opened up an extra position, for which I was eligible. And guess what? I was Not Picked again!

Later, when I was completing my degree at Oxford University, I started applying for PhD places at prestigious universities. I applied to stay at Oxford – Rejected. I tried Cambridge – Rejected. Imperial College London? Rejected. Cardiff? “Nothing available this year, but please try next year.”

For the first time in my life, I was without options. All the doors I had pushed at were closed. I suffered the deepest sense of rejection I had ever experienced in my life. Then, most unexpectedly, an opening came up to work for the Church in Nottingham for a year, and after that gap year, I was able to come to Cardiff for my PhD. Now, with hindsight, I can see God’s hand at work in all of those closed and opened doors, but at the time it was very painful.

When we experience rejection, we leap to the conclusion that God doesn’t care about us. That’s a mistake! God cares a lot, but in this fallen world God allows situations to take place where we experience temporary rejection. Even God’s own son, Jesus Christ, was rejected by his own people before rising into everlasting glory.

What is God saying to us today? We are the “Church in which everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven.” God has no grandchildren – we are all equally, by our baptism, sons and daughters of the living God! The Word goes on to say that we have “been placed with spirits of the saints who have been made perfect”. That doesn’t sound like much of a rejection to me!

God does not reject us – but if we have unrealistic expectations, we will certainly experience rejection. This is why Jesus is so keen to immunize us against rejection with the teaching He gives today.

“Always take the lowest place,” he tells us. First, notice that WE ARE INVITED. Jesus is not saying we shouldn’t come to the banquet. We are invited, and we are expected. It is the right place for us!  If we come without expecting or demanding honours or special treatment, we cannot be disappointed. But if our expectations are too high, we will be humbled.

Friends in Christ, I know that you who worship regularly in St John Lloyd are about to enter a challenging period of weeks. For two months, there will be no resident priest here. Then there will be a new priest to get used to. You will be tempted with proud thoughts:

“Why was OUR parish chosen to be without a priest for two months? Why was Pastor Gareth sent here for such a short time if he wasn’t going to be able to stay? We deserve better!” If you allow those thoughts to get the better of you, then you will experience a rejection which is not God’s plan for you. But if you were to say to yourself: “We are a small parish. The Archbishop could have easily merged us or left us without a priest. We know resources are limited, and whatever we are given is a gift,”, then in our hearts we will have taken the lowest place, and will receive a blessing from Christ.

I want to invite you, here and now, this evening, to make a commitment. Because there will be different priests for the next two months, the style of worship will vary from week to week. Then you will need to get used to your new parish priest. You may feel tempted to go to Mass somewhere else. That might be good for you – but it wouldn’t be good for this parish and it wouldn’t be good for your new parish priest. Therefore, I ask you: if you regularly come to this Saturday evening Mass, or if you come one of the Masses at St John Lloyd every weekend, will you make a humble committment tonight to keep coming here for the next four months, however bumpy things feel?

Will you support each other through the time of change? Will you give your new priest a chance?

Finally, a word to those of you whose hearts have been wounded by rejection. The only person who can heal that wound is called Jesus. I must leave you for a new assignment, but Jesus will never leave this parish, and he, the Good Shepherd, will never abandon even one of you, who are his sheep. There are many ways Jesus comes to us. When we receive Holy Communion, he enters us in the form of the Blessed Sacrament. But he can also touch our hearts and minds in prayer.

Therefore I have one final parting gift for you.

I invite you to close your eyes and open your hands in front of you.

In this moment of prayer, I ask Jesus Our Lord to speak to each one of you, in the depths of your heart. You are not a mistake. Your being here is not an accident. You are loved by God and saved by Jesus.

Whatever rejection you may have experienced from other human beings, however it might have seemed like God himself had forgotten you, he was with you. I ask Jesus to come to you  now and touch your hearts.

Come, Holy Spirit!

Shrines of Belgium: Banneux

Last year, I visited the shrine of Pellevoisin in France. Because the Eurostar Train was severely delayed, I was given a free ticket in compensation – but the condition was that I had to book a journey to Paris, Lille or Brussels within one year. So I decided to spend a few days in Brussels and visit some of the shrines of Belgium. On 7 March 2013, I travelled to Banneux.

Following the apparitions of Our Lady at Beauraing, from 29 November 1932 until 3 January 1933, there were many copycat claims of the Mother of God appearing elsewhere in Belgium. Most were rejected as spurious by the church authorities, but one had the ring of truth. A 12-year-old girl, Mariette Beco, claimed that the Mother of God had appeared to her in the village of Banneux eight times from 15 January 1933 until 2 March of the same year. During the second apparition (18th January), Mariette was directed to place her hands in a pool of water where a local spring welled up. The Lady said: “This spring is reserved for me.”

The place of the spring in Banneux

The place of the spring in Banneux

The following day, the Lady appeared again, and when Mariette asked after her identity, the Lady declared herself “the Virgin of the Poor.” The Virgin then led the child to the spring. Mariette asked the Lady to clarify for whom the spring was reserved, and the reply came: “this spring is reserved for all nations… for the sick.” The next day, the Lady asked for “a small chapel” – and then the visions ceased for three weeks.

During further visions, on February 11, 15 and 20, the Lady declared that she has “come to relieve suffering” and asked Mariette to “pray hard.” The Lady’s parting words, on 2 March, were: “I am the Mother of the Saviour, Mother of God. Pray much.” The Virgin then laid her hands on her and said Adieu.

In May 1942, Bishop Kerkhofs of the Diocese of Liège provisionally recognised that the apparitions were genuine, and the Vatican added its seal of approval in 1947. Mariette Beco lived until 2 December 2011, dying at the age of 90. Three years earlier, at a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the visions, she released a statement saying: “I was no more than a postman who delivers the mail. Once this has been done, the postman is of no importance any more.”

If you wish to travel to Banneux, you can consult the shrine’s official website. It is a two-hour journey from Brussels; you can travel as far as Liège by rail, but must then take a bus to Banneux. On my pilgrimage, not knowing where to disembark, I waited until the road signs indicated that we had entered Banneux, and stopped the bus as soon as I saw a church on the roadside. It looked like the Banneux shrine had a very small complex – but in fact what I had seen was a row of pilgrim hostels and houses of prayer.

Virgin of the Poor ResidenceBanneux House of Prayer (3)Pictured right, is the first building I saw – the chapel of the first hostel. Just along the road from it, and pictured left, is the House of Prayer of the Maranatha Community. In between the two is a nursing home named for “the Virgin of the Poor.”

I stopped for a while to pray in the chapel of the House of Prayer, and then walked around the other buildings until it became clear that this was not the main shrine complex. On the wall outside one of the buildings, a small memorial commemorated Albert van den Berg, who gave his life protecting Jews and Christians during the Nazi occupation. Note the statues within the grounds as well as the plaques on the wall!

Albert van den Berg at Banneux

I walked on, following the bus route, and after five minutes entered a more built-up part of Banneux with hotels, bars and shops selling religious goods. Beyond the commercial street I discovered the protected sanctuary area.

Banneux Apparition Site (1)The first chapel at Banneux (pictured, right) was built within months of the apparitions. Today the sites of the first apparition and the spring are protected within an extensive woodland sanctuary, which allows pilgrims to walk around the grounds prayerfully and where several indoor and outdoor arenas are available for Mass; one arena is directly behind the spring.

Statues of Our Lady of Banneux could easily be confused with the well-known depiction of Our Lady of Lourdes.Statue of Our Lady of Banneux St Bernadette and Mariette Beco both saw Our Lady with a blue sash, and a golden rose on at least one foot – but at Lourdes, both feet were visible, whereas Mariette only saw Mary’s right foot. So if a statue looks like Our Lady of Lourdes, but has the left foot hidden and is not crowned with the words “I am the Immaculate Conception” then look again – it may in fact be a depiction of Our Lady as she revealed herself at Banneux.

As with Lourdes, so the focus at Banneux is on prayer for healing, a place of pilgrimage for the sick of all nations. Within the grounds, a building called the ‘Chapel of the Nations’ has been made available for Orthodox Christian worship and is richly decorated with icons.

The Chapel of the Nations

The Chapel of the Nations

Our Lady of Banneux - White Marble (1)

Our Lady of Banneux - Blessing (4)

There are many depictions of Our Lady of Banneux within the shrine grounds. The statue, left, is the standard image, rendered in white stone. The design on the right is rather different – it reminds us that twice during the series of apparitions, Our Lady laid her hands on Mariette’s head and then blessed her with the sign of the Cross. There is also a statue of Our Lady of Banneux in the Cathedral at Liège.

Our Lady’s clear intention at Banneux was that people from the nations should come there to pray for healing. Near the exit from the shrine grounds are two large noticeboards filled with votive plaques from grateful people acknowledging answers to prayer. The dates on the plaques seem to run from 2000 to 2006, though they are not all in order. With 220 plaques on each board, this works out at more than one answered and acknowledged prayer per week!

Thanksgivings in Banneux 2000-2006 (2)

If Beauraing was the Fatima of Belgium, then Banneux is certainly its Lourdes. The only message of the shrine is the explicit call to pray and the implicit invitation for the nations to come in search of healing. Indeed, the hiatus after Mariette’s first four visions ended with the fifth vision on the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes, February 11th. Since the Lourdes of Belgium is closer, less busy, and in a country more accommodating of speaking English than the Lourdes of France, perhaps we in Wales should take our sick there on pilgrimage, finding our place among the “invitation to the nations”!

Why would God permit the Blessed Mother to echo both Fatima and Lourdes in Belgium within the space of three months? Why was no other European nation so favoured in the 20th century? To these questions we have no easy answer, save that “God will do whatever God chooses to do.” It is for God, and his servants, to invite us to the wells of grace, and on our part, we are called to make a humble response. The events of Beauraing and Banneux will soon pass out of living memory, but the shrines remain, a living link to the past, to the Lord, and to the graces God continues to bestow on his faithful people through the prayers of the Blessed Mother.

Are you ready for the New Normal?

Homily at St John Lloyd, for the Third Sunday of Year C

Are you ready for the New to become Normal?

On the day that the High Priest Ezra proclaimed God’s word, the Jewish Temple was newly rebuilt. After 70 years in exile, the Jewish people could once again make sacrifices according to God’s Law in Jerusalem. Something which was barely within living memory was about to become normal once again – and the people looked forward to it!

On the day that Our Lord Jesus Christ stood up to read in the synagogue, God was about to do something new. For centuries, prophets had spoken to the Chosen People. Now the Son of God was ready to walk among them. For 30 years he had lived an unremarkable human life, but he had just been baptised in the Jordan and was now ready to fulfil his destiny. As Jesus travelled through Galilee, the neighbouring lands, and Jersualem, the eyes of the blind would be opened, the lame made to walk, and the dead raised to life. But his listeners were not expecting one of their own villagers to be the Messiah, and resisted such a new and radical message – if we read further in the Gospel passage we discover that following his bold declaration, Jesus narrowly avoided being thrown from a cliff!

On the day of Pentecost, following the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the 12 Apostles experienced the power of the Holy Spirit. They had already been sent out, before the Crucifixion, with a mission to heal; now Peter proclaimed the message of Jesus and many listeners became believers. For the first converts to Christianity, a New Normal was beginning; we read in the book of Acts that many signs and wonders were worked by the apostles, and that newly-baptised Christians were often immediately blessed with the ability to pray in the prayer language of heaven, referred to as “speaking in tongues”.

By the time St Paul wrote his First Letter to the Christians in Corinth, it was normal that within a Christian community there would be people with different gifts – some conventional gifts, such as being leaders, teachers or administrators, but also extraordinary spiritual gifts including healing, praying in tongues, and a God-given understanding which allowed the meaning of a prayer in tongues to be expressed in everyday language.

As time passed, it became much less common for church communities to experience the more extraordinary gifts. They never died out completely – there have always been reports of miracles in the church, rare examples of great saints with wonder-working powers. But during the twentieth century, these gifts became much more common – at the beginning of the century, in the Pentecostal Churches, and then from 1967 onwards, in Catholic prayer groups, starting in the USA and spreading around the world.

In part, it’s up to God to decide where and when extraordinary gifts are given. But in part, it’s up to us to ask for them. The first Catholics to experience these gifts in the USA did so because they had made a retreat to study the Acts of the Apostles and pray for a deeper experience of the Holy Spirit.

Last summer, I assisted a group of mainly Filipino Catholics holding a weekend retreat. I was due to give some basic teaching for new members, but the new members weren’t able to come. So the leaders asked me, instead, whether I would give a teaching on praying in tongues? Following my talk I prayed with the group, and three of the dozen or so members present experienced the ability to use this prayer language from the Holy Spirit for the first time.

Last week, when I visited a friend who lives outside this parish, she asked if I would bring the holy oil to anoint her friend who was suffering from back pain. When I did so, two remarkable things happened: the woman in pain received a momentary experience of God’s loving presence, and the pain went away. Now in my nearly six years of priesthood, that was only the second time that a remarkable physical recovery quickly followed an anointing, and the first time, as far as I know, that someone had a personal experience of God’s presence. But these touches of God’s presence can and do happen, when they are not deterred by our low expectations; the Sacraments become more fruitful when celebrated in a community with strong faith, and last week I think it was significant that a Christian friend of the sick person had the faith to ask for the Sacrament. Do we believe that God might want to heal us during this earthly life? The Sacrament of the Sick is not only meant as a “last rite” to send our souls to heaven!

Our expectations can create space where God can work wonders, or quench the work of the Holy Spirit almost entirely. The question is, what kind of church do we want our parish to be? If our vision is that we should be a community who gather for Mass, do the best we can to pass on our faith to our children, and run social events to raise funds to keep our building in good repair, that’s what we’ll get.

On the other hand, we might want our church to be the kind of church which the Apostles experienced in the first century, and which many Catholic prayer groups experienced in the 1970s and 80s. We might want to share in the work of Jesus in bringing freedom to captives, sight to the blind, and allowing the Spirit of God to work freely in our lives. But that would mean that we’d have to allow something new to become normal. We’d have to have the faith to believe that God can do, here in Cardiff, the remarkable things which Catholics have experienced in other places and other times – a way of being church that would be new for us.

Ezra’s listeners rejoiced that they could live out a renewed expression of their faith, unseen for a generation.

The Lord’s listeners were more skeptical, and told him to go jump off a cliff.

And what about us? How shall we receive this message? If you have the courage to do so, ask God to speak to your heart about His desires for this parish.

The prospect of change always stirs up uncomfortable feelings. So look beyond that initial discomfort. Look to that place where God touches your heart and directs you in which way you should go. Be attentive to whether the idea of a Church renewed by God’s powerful presence fills you with excitement or with coldness. God’s more remarkable gifts are on offer, but He will not give them unless we ask for them. Our parish will be the kind of parish we believe it should be. Are you ready for the New to become Normal? It can, but only if that’s what you desire.