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

Disappointment, and Eternal Life!

Homily at St Philip Evans on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, With Scrutinies (Year A Readings).

The Seven Word Sermon: God and others let us down. Forgive!

Today, we celebrate the Final Scrutiny of those who are to become members of the church at Easter. To be baptised is to become a member of Christ’s family. So it is only fair that I come clean about what is on offer. I can only promise you two things if you become a faithful member of the Catholic Church: Disappointment, and Eternal Life!

Disappointment, and Eternal Life, are the two hallmarks of the story of Lazarus. We are told that Our Lord Jesus loved Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus – their household was for him a home from home where he was welcome ‘like family’. Even so, when Jesus receives news that Lazarus is dying, he does not rush to the bedside; he delays for two whole days.

Enter the redoubtable figure of St Martha, a strong woman, a woman of great faith! On the surface, she displays strength and faith in the midst of grief. Under the surface, she must have been a melting pot of conflicting thoughts.

  • Why didn’t Jesus come sooner?
  • But two days wouldn’t have made a difference anyway.
  • But why did he delay – doesn’t he really care?
  • Yet he is here now, and I am really glad he is here.
  • Couldn’t he have done something, even at a distance?

Martha is delighted to see Jesus, livid at the way he has treated her. Martha stands here for all of us who have been let down by a partner or friend whom we love deeply. She holds together deep affection and deep disappointment. She does not stop caring for Jesus, yet is filled with anguish for what could have happened.

Let’s not be distracted by the end of the story, where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. He allows Mary and Martha, whom he loves deeply, to endure the death of their brother. He could have spoken a word of command at a distance – but he didn’t. And he delayed his journey so that there would be no doubt Lazarus had truly died before he could be raised. Soon, we will remember how his friends had to endure his own death on the Cross; two of them would trudge off sadly down the road to Emmaus uttering the forlorn words, “we had hoped he was the one…” before discovering that their hope had in fact caught up with them!

Jesus allows even the family he loves to be tested by disappointment. This, then, is the reason I warn you who will become members of the Church to expect disappointment. In the church we teach a wonderful message – that we are loved by God and we are called to be a community which shows love to one another. And this is true! Yet we will not always experience God’s love in the way we would hope; and as a parish community will not always succeed in bringing love to those most in need of love.

It may be that you feel let down by God because you have not experienced God’s love in the way you wished for. If so, can you forgive God for not being the kind of god you want God to be?

It may be that you feel let down by an individual in this parish, or by the church as an institution, for failing to communicate love to you at a time when you really needed it. If so, can you forgive the Church or the individual for failing to meet your needs?

If we ache to be loved, let’s remember that others are in the same situation. Others, in fact, may be wishing that they experienced more of our love. Perhaps there is more we can do to reach out to others. Or perhaps we are trying our best but failing to communicate love in the way the other person can best receive it. Can we adjust what we do, or the way we do it, that others may better know our love?

In marriage, especially, it is crucial for couples to take time for an honest conversation, where each person can say “I feel X when you do Y”. In other close relationships, too, it might be useful ask which of our actions succeed or fail in communicating love – the answers may not be the ones we expect!

And then there is our life as a parish family. We are all called to show love to one another; and as a small but important step, I remind us all today that I encourage you to offer the Sign of Peace by using each other’s name.

How many members of this parish do you know well enough that you could pay a visit or pick up the phone? Could you make an unexpected call to just one other member of your church family between now and Easter? If each of us did just one thing, this parish would be enriched by 300 acts of love!

In the story of Lazarus, a human drama and a divine drama come together. The human drama is one we all experience every day – the cycle of hope and disappointment, friendship and love, illness and death. The divine drama is the greater story of Jesus, who died so that we could all have eternal life. Lazarus was raised from the dead, to live out the rest of his earthly span, as a sign to us that Jesus truly has power over life and death. My second promise to you, rooted in the raising of Lazarus and Rising of Christ, is that if you live out the values of our church faithfully, when your mortal body dies, you will experience a life with Jesus which is unending happiness. Of this, I am as certain as that you will experience disappointment with God and with the Church before you enter into bliss. Today’s other Bible readings contain God’s promise of the opening of the grave and eternal life.

Lazarus emerges from the tombSo whether you are becoming Catholic this Easter or have been living the faith for many years, there are only two things I can promise you – times of disappointment during this life, and eternal happiness with God in the life to come. But cheer up – I cannot promise, but I hope, that you will have many experiences of being loved within the church family. And of one thing I am certain – that within our church family there will be precisely the number of acts of love which we choose to share with each other!

This homily is dedicated to my closest friends, those who regard me as “like family”, and with whom I am close enough to have shared disappointments. You know who you are, and I love you all.

The Better Part

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

Episode 2 of 4 in our new series, The Teachings of Jesus.

Mary has chosen the better part. But Martha has her defenders!

A few weeks ago, we pondered today’s gospel passage at the Churches Together Bible Study here at St John Lloyd. Many of those who came rushed to Martha’s aid. Surely she was doing something good, and right, and proper, by tending to the needs of Our Lord and the other guests who came with him?

No-one is saying Martha was doing something bad. She was doing what was expected of her in that culture, where taking care of guests was extremely important. Apart from her uncharitable comment about her sister, we can commend her for doing her duty. Jesus didn’t say she was doing anything wrong. But he did say: “Mary has chosen the better part.”

Perhaps that doesn’t sit so well with us. We might question whether Jesus really said it. But the Gospels are our best link to the words and action of Jesus, and our Church is confident that they teach the honest truth about what he said and did. So yes, I think we have to accept that Jesus did say: “Mary has chosen the better part.”

If he said it, do we have to agree with it? That depends whether Jesus is a member of your panel of religious advisors, or your Lord. If you are developing your own religion based on those sayings of Jesus which you agree with, then it’s up to you. But as Catholics, we profess every Sunday that we believe “in one Lord Jesus Christ… true God from true God”. This is why St Paul could say to the Christians in Colossae: “God made me responsible for delivering God’s message to you, the message…now… revealed to his saints. It was God’s purpose to reveal… the Christ we proclaim.”

If Jesus is God, he isn’t going to make a mistake. If we call him Lord, we are implying that we will follow his teachings. And what Jesus wants to teach us on this occasion is that what Mary chose to do is better than what Martha chose to do.

As for why it’s better… ah! Now we can begin to have an open-ended conversation!

Let’s look again, and what do we see? Mary, sitting, listening, at the feet of Jesus.

Martha, “distracted” by the serving, asking Jesus to intervene in her relationship with her sister, and being politely but firmly told, no, because Martha was fretting about “many things” when Mary had chosen “the better part”.

Perhaps Martha’s fault was that she jumped to her own conclusion about what was needed, while her sister was willing to listen. Love is patient!

Perhaps Martha’s fault was too much attention to detail – were the “many things” the preparation of an elaborate meal when a simple snack would have been enough? Love is not expressed in the detail so much as in the simple act of caring.

Perhaps Martha’s fault was wanting her sister to hold exactly the same values as herself. Her exasperated request for Jesus to put Mary to work reveals something about very ordinary family tensions, revealed here because Jesus was already a friend of the family. Love allows other people to be different from yourself while still respecting and cherishing them.

Painting by Otto van Veen - Martha protests with Jesus while Mary sits at his feet.

Perhaps Martha’s fault was in wanting to bring her sister down from her boldness in daring to sit at the feet of Jesus, the rabbi – a place where only men would normally sit in that culture. But Jesus seems unconcerned. He often questions the Jewish traditions of his day, so perhaps he’s saying that it’s better for the ladies to learn from their rabbi, on this one-day-only opportunity, than to take on the normal duties of hospitality. Love does not seek to embarrass others for their boldness.

Perhaps Martha’s fault was in not recognising that the Lord of the work is more important that the work of the Lord. The Church needs Marthas – it needs activists who get things done. But even the most active Catholic needs to take time to stop and listen to God, and here Martha is hosting God in person, yet missing out on his words of life.

But don’t despair. The Martha we are speaking of is Saint Martha – a friend of God recognised for her true holiness. It was Martha, not Mary, who recognised that Jesus was the true Christ before he raised Lazarus from the dead. Martha is part of the company of heaven, and if we follow her example we will do much good.

Yet… “Mary has chosen the better part.” For this reason our Church prizes women and men who respond to the call to be hermits, monks and nuns. In the eyes of the world, their existence seems futile. But to our eyes of faith, those called to a lifestyle of daily prayer and contemplation are the ones who have responded to the deepest invitation to “choose the better part”.

Is today’s Gospel about the excellence of spending time with Jesus, in holy listening? Is it about the importance of living simply even when a guest is at hand? Is it about avoiding jealousy in sibling relationships? It could be any or all of these things. You are free to pick your own interpretation, so long as you agree up with one basic conclusion:Mary has chosen the better part. So go, and do likewise.