What kind of saint will you be?

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Solemnity of All Saints, 2017.

What kind of saint do you want to be?

In the Missal, there are prayers to honour different kinds of saint. First place goes to Our Lady and the Apostles. But there’s no room for new Apostles – they belong to the New Testament.

What kind of saint do you want to be?

The second place goes to Martyrs. It’s not impossible that any one of us might be killed for our faithfulness to Christ or the Catholic Church – but in this country, it’s not very likely right now. Our patron, Saint Philip Evans, reminds us that it was different in the past… we pray that all of us here today will be spared the honour of shedding our blood for Christ.

What kind of saint do you want to be?

Next place goes to Pastors. This covers all kinds of priests and bishops, from Pope Gregory the Great to the humble Curé of Ars. Some founded religious orders, others led churches in times of crisis. Maybe God is calling someone here today to be a priest. Usually, in our Western tradition, that is someone who never married, but widowers are eligible too – for instance, Deacon Peter MacLaren, who preached at my 10th anniversary Mass, is now a priest. But not many of us will be called to take Holy Orders.

What kind of saint do you want to be?

The Missal has a large collection of prayers in honour of Virgins. Some of these, the virgin martyrs, were women who died for refusing to enter ungodly relationships. But most of them are women who knew that God was calling them to live their life on earth as a bride of Christ. The Bible hints that there are special rewards in heaven for men and women who choose not to enter a sexual relationship on earth, as a shocking sign to the world that our relationship with God is more important than any earthly intimacy.

All of us, who are followers of Christ, are called to chastity – that means waiting until we are married before experiencing sexual union for the first time. Some of us here today may be called to Virginity for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. This can be a lived out in a formal way by joining a religious order, becoming a hermit, or for women only, making a vow of virginity directly to the bishop of the diocese. Others among us may discover in practice that God has called us to this because the right relationship has never come along for us during our lifetime. It can be a scary thought, that God would call you to live for intimacy with Him alone – but He asks this of you, when you find the courage to embrace it, He will give you strength.

What kind of saint do you want to be?

Perhaps you haven’t found the right kind yet. Not many of us will be ordained ministers or embrace virginity for the sake of God’s Kingdom. St John Paul II and Pope Francis agree with you – we need another kind of saint!

Virginity is good, for those who are called to it, but marriage is also blessed by God – indeed we call it a state of holy matrimony. The final kind of saint in the Missal is found in ‘the Common of Holy Men and Women’. In case that sounds like a poor relation which is ‘none of the above’, remember the most pre-eminent such saint is no less than St Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin!* Among these saints are widows who entered religious life, deacons and religious brothers who never became pastors, and visionaries like St Bernadette and the little shepherds of Fatima.

St John Paul realised that we need more role models who are not religious or in holy orders, and made it his business to beatify and canonise many more examples of holiness who are closer to our everyday life. Pope Francis recently rewrote the rules to emphasise that there is another way to become a saint. “Greater love has no-one than to lay down his life for a friend,” said Our Lord. Yet until this year there was no explicit category of saints who did this – and that is going to need a new page in the Missal. But there are examples to inspire us:

St Maximilian Kolbe offered his life to save a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz.

St Gianna Molla and Blessed Chiara Corbella were pregnant mothers who chose to forego life-saving treatment for themselves in order to avoid damage to their unborn children.

Blessed Piergiorgio Frassati, a young Italian in his 20s, visited sick people in Turin, and died of an illness he probably picked up by doing so.

Blessed Laura Vicuña, a Chilean teenager, made a vow offering her life to Jesus if He would rescue her mother from living in sin. She died following a beating from her mother’s abusive partner, but her mother found the strength to leave the abusive relationship and return to the Church.

St Giuseppe Moscati, an Italian doctor, was canonised for simply being a prayerful man who devoted himself to his medical craft.

What kind of saint do you want to be?

It is not even necessary to die for the sake of others to become a saint. Pope Francis recently canonized the parents of St Thérèse of Lisieux – now Saints Louis and Zélie Martin – for the example they gave of being committed parents over a truly Christian family.

Blessed Chiara Badano and St Dominic Savio both died in their teens; they were beatified simply for living lives which embraced Catholic values to the full in the way they put God first and loved their friends in purity and simplicity.

Chiara and Dominic were not martyrs, nor visionaries. They were ordinary Catholics like you and me. If they can be recognised as saints by the way they lived their lives before the age of 20, then sainthood is within reach of every one of us.

Resist the temptation to say that being a ‘saint’ is too lofty an ambition and you only wish to be an ordinary Christian. Oh no! Be careful! A ‘saint’ is just someone who made it into heaven. If you tell God ‘I don’t want to be a saint’, what you are really saying is ‘I don’t want to go to heaven!’

We will not all be high profile saints with a special day in the calendar. But we should all aim to make today our feast day – that when our grandchildren attend Mass today in 100 years’ time, we will be among ‘all the saints’ they are honouring in heaven. So be a saint. There’s only one question that matters: What kind of saint do you want to be?


* The ‘Common of Virgins’ is specifically for female saints. The Catholic Church has not taken a formal view on whether St Joseph had a previous wife before his celibate marriage to the Blessed Virgin. For these reasons, St Joseph’s feast days appropriately draws from the Common of Holy Men & Women.


Forgive!

Homily at St Philip Evans, on Palm Sunday, Year C.

“Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.”

Forgiveness.

It is the most distinctive feature of our Christian faith.

Every day, we pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The story of the Lord’s Passion is shot through with forgiveness.

Peter, you will deny me three times, but once you have recovered, you must strengthen your brothers.

One of the disciples cut off the right ear of the high priest’s servant, but touching the man’s ear, Jesus healed him.

They crucified Jesus. He said: “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.”

The good thief acknowledged that he deserved punishment, and said “Jesus, remember me.” Jesus replied, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

The story of God’s people through the ages is also shot through with forgiveness.

St Stephen, the deacon and first martyr of the church, was stoned, and died crying: ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’

In 1679, St Philip Evans was brought to the gallows in Roath and was permitted to make a speech before he was hanged. “If I have or had any enemies in the world, which I do not know that ever I had in my life, I do heartily forgive them for anything done or said against me, and if I have offended anybody, I am heartily sorry for it and ask them forgiveness. I pray God bless and prosper the king.”

In 1902, a young Italian girl was fatally wounded by a young man who attacked her. Her parish priest brought her Holy Communion and asked whether she forgave her attacker. St Maria Goretti replied, “Yes, I forgive him and want him to be in Paradise with me.”

Blessed Miguel Pro, about to be executed by firing squadIn 1927, a Jesuit priest working in Mexico was falsely
accused of plotting against the President. Rejecting the traditional blindfold, Blessed Miguel Pro stretched his arms out in the form of a cross and facing the firing squad said, “May God have mercy on you. May God bless you. Lord, You know that I am innocent. With all my heart I forgive my enemies.”

Beyond the ranks of the Catholic Church, we could speak of the Methodist, Gordon Wilson, who forgave the IRA for the bomb which killed his daughter, Marie; we could point to the Anglican Bishop Festo Kivengere, who dared to preach forgiveness towards the homicidal dictator, Idi Amin; we could mention of the Russian mystic Seraphim of Sarov, who was brutally assaulted and left crippled for life, but refused to press charges against his attackers.

Christians forgive. If we do not forgive, we are not followers of the Crucified One.

But how can we forgive? If someone has wounded us so deeply that our only feelings towards that person are hatred and revenge, are we not entitled to say, “I cannot forgive – I will never forgive”?

No.

Say not, “I cannot forgive”, but “I will not forgive” – because forgiveness is a choice.

Forgiveness is nothing to do with your feelings, and everything to do with your willpower.

How can you forgive your worst enemy? Here are three steps you must take.

  1. Say the words. “Heavenly Father, I forgive this person. Do not hold their sin against them.”
  2. Choose not to punish the person for what they have done. If there is any ongoing situation where you are being vindictive, stop it immediately.
  3. Show some sign of love towards the other person, if it is safe to do so.

None of these actions require you to feel warm towards your enemy. They only require an act of will. You forgive with your mind first, and eventually your heart will follow.

Perhaps this seems too much to ask. It will certainly require a great deal of emotional energy. If you cannot find it within yourself, ask God for a share of the love which flows from the wounded heart of Jesus. But if you need inspiration, if you need motivation, look to the Crucifix, and remember what we celebrate this day.

“Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.”

 

Food For The Journey

Homily at St Philip Evans on Maundy Thursday 2015

The Seven Word Sermon: Christ exhorts and sustains us through life.

Are we nearly there yet?

For six weeks we have been journeying through Lent. If we have taken our Lent seriously, we have done whatever is within our power to overcome our bad habits and to increase our doing of good deeds. God willing, our new and better habits will stick – but we may not sustain our short-term burst of good deeds in the long haul.

400 years ago, a French priest, St Vincent de Paul, felt inspired to gather a band of men who would travel to the ends of the earth to do the work of God; he called them simply The Congregation of the Mission, and reflected on their work in these words:

What have our Missioners in the Far East undertaken?  … A single man takes on the care of a ship crewed by two hundred convicts: religious instruction and confessions to the healthy and to the sick, day and night, for two weeks; and at the end of that time, he gives them a party, going himself to buy a side of beef and have it cooked; it’s their delight; one man alone does all that! Sometimes he goes off to the farms where slaves are placed; he takes them on their free time and helps them to know God; he gets them ready to receive the sacraments, and at the end he gives them a treat and has a little party for them. In Madagascar the Missioners preach, hear confessions, and teach catechism constantly from four in the morning until ten, and from two in the afternoon until nightfall; the rest of the time is spent praying the Office and visiting the sick. Those men are workers, they’re true Missioners!

Are we nearly there yet? Not yet, but we are well on the way. The journey takes a lifetime; but God has provided us with food for the journey.

Faith and feasting have always gone hand in hand. God commanded the Israelites to sacrifice and eat the Passover Lamb each year. Our Lord Jesus celebrated a similar meal at the Last Supper, when he commanded us to feast on his body and blood. The Missioners mentioned by St Vincent completed each of their missions by a celebration meal. Our journey through life is punctuated by feasting and fasting. In giving us the Gift which is the Eucharist, Our Lord has entrusted us with food for the journey. In doing this, he at one and the same time instructed us about what was within our power, and what was his alone. It is within our power to give of ourselves to those in need. It is within God’s power to sustain us on the journey with the Bread from Heaven.A South American native holds aloft a monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament

Many of you may have watched the film, The Mission, on television last Sunday. There is one scene in which a missionary priest, trying to protect the natives of a South American tribe, leads them in a procession, carrying the Blessed Sacrament. When he is attacked and falls, a native picks up the monstrance and continues the procession. That priest, though merely the creation of a scriptwriter, represents the many missionaries who have succeeded in giving both material help and a renewed sense of dignity to the poorest people of the world. Among them, we might name the soon-to-be-Blessed Archbishop Oscar Romero, gunned down at Mass for speaking up for the poor, and many of St Vincent de Paul’s missionary martyrs.

When the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul sold their property to build the Deaf Service Hall here at St Philip Evans, we inherited the contents of their chapel. Among them are relics of St Vincent de Paul himself, and two of his priests who were martyred as missionaries in China, St John Gabriel Perboyre and St Francis Regis Clet. Nor was St Vincent only an inspiration to men, for he founded the Daughters of Charity with St Louise de Marillac; perhaps the most famous later member was St Catherine Labouré, to whom the Blessed Mother showed herself to reveal the Miraculous Medal. I have placed all these relics on the table where we will also receive the holy oils, because the oils are for our journey to become saints: in Baptism, we are joined to the body of Christ; in Confirmation, we are promised strength to help us act as saints; in the Sacrament of the Sick, we are anointed to prepare our souls to return the mission on Earth or enter the company of the saints in Heaven.

Lent is but a moment in the cycle of our Christian life, to remind us of the mission we have been given all-year-round, to love one another as Christ has loved us. Tonight we remember how Christ taught us the work of humble service by washing the feet of his disciples, disciples who were commissioned to go out into the world and do likewise. This is our mission as Christians, as Catholics. We who choose to gather on this Thursday night, we are the heart of this parish, and so it falls especially on us to continue this mission.

Loving other people is hard work. It takes a lot of time. The people we try to love never behave the way wish they would. And whatever good we do, it never seems enough, for there’s always more that we could do if only life and its limitations did not get in the way. But God knows this. God himself experienced the limits of human flesh in Jesus Christ. And Jesus constantly called upon us not to be afraid. If we are truly people who love without fear, then the way we vote in next month’s General Election will be shaped by a generous concern for the poorest members of society, not a frightened snatching at our own self-interest.

Are we nearly there yet? None of us knows the day or hour when God will call us to complete our journey. Tragically, we live in an age where religious extremists are making martyrs of Christians in many parts of the world. We are called to the bloodless martyrdom of living our daily lives for Christ. In this, we are not alone. God has provided for us, food for the journey. Let us not be daunted by our calling, for St Vincent spoke as follows: We’ll always have greater strength than is needed, especially when the occasion arises. No one can be excused on the grounds of powerlessness: we have in us the seeds of the omnipotence of Jesus Christ. 

Saints of Wales

Homily at St Brigid’s for the November 2014 Day of Renewal on the feast of All Saints of Wales.Welsh bards in robes

The Seven Word Sermon: Choose to be humble, Wales needs saints!

I saw a vast crowd, too numerous to count, clothed in white robes – and in blue, and in green.

I said to the man standing near me, “Who are these wearing robes, and where did they come from?”

“Well,” said the man, in a West Wales accent, “they are the bards here at the Eisteddfod, look you, and they have come to Llanelli from Dolgellau and Aberystwyth, Caldey Island and Blaenau Ffestiniog, and all the way from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch!”

Why do we celebrate a special Feast of the Saints of Wales? Like any nation, we have our own culture – the Eisteddfod is our cultural festival. A culture is simply a common way of doing things – and the saints of our own nation teach us something relevant about being holy in the midst of our own people.

Jesus taught us the way of holiness in the Beatitudes we have just heard proclaimed. It strikes me that those Jesus calls “blessed” fall into two categories – the humble, and the victims.

The humble beatitudes are pronounced for those who are poor in spirit, gentle, merciful and pure in heart. We see these values reflected by the great Celtic saints of Wales, David and Dyfrig, Illtyd and Winifred, saints who embraced the simple and austere life of the monastery or the convent. They served others in need of hospitality and healthcare, and embraced a life of celibacy and manual labour for the good of others. We can imitate their spirit of service in the way we serve our family members, our friends, and those who live in the same community as ourselves.

The victims are those who have experienced loss, hunger and thirst, persecution and calumny. They call to mind the martyrs of Wales – not only the famous six sainted Welsh martyrs of the Reformation, but also those beatified – Bd William Davies, who ran a hidden printing-press in Llandudno; Bd Philip Powell from Brecon, arrested in Cornwall; and Bd Charles Mahoney, a secret missionary to Ireland who was shipwrecked on the North Wales coast. Together with the two martyrs of Roman times, Saints Julius and Aaron, they stand as reminders that faithful Catholics were willing to stand up for their faith in Wales despite the efforts of those who wielded power and tried to shape the culture. In fairness, it must be said that many of the ordinary folk of Wales refused to take part in the persecution. When Bd William Davies was sentenced to be executed, not one man in Anglesey would have anything to do with it! Executioners had to be called in from Chester.

Times have changed. Many of the people of Wales are now suspicious of the “old fashioned” values which our faith cherishes. The modern way is the way of total freedom. Our faith teaches us the great value of self-control. We need a new kind of saint for Wales, one who can build bridges between the values of our faith and the world around us.

Three years ago, I was in Dare Valley Country Park, celebrating Mass with a group of newly-confirmed young people. The sight of a robed priest celebrating Mass on a rock caused not a few passers-by to stop and pay attention to my sermon. I wonder what they made of it? But we are all called to be ambassadors for Christ, no less than the missionary-monks who sailed from Wales to Ireland and Normandy, or the martyrs who returned to Wales from the continent. We are not yet a vast multitude, too numerous to count. but if anyone asks who we are, St John Paul II offers an answer: “These are the saints of the new millennium. These are the people who pursue holiness, who believe prayer is important. These are the people who believe Mass is the most important thing to do on Sunday, who humbly go to confession when conscious of sin. These are the people who study God’s Word, are attentive to God’s gift of grace, and seek to share these gifts with others.”

One beatitude embraces both humility and victimhood – “Blessed are the Peacemakers”. There is a special blessing for those who have known oppression yet reach out to their enemies. The saints of 21st century Wales will be those who master the art of proclaiming what we believe, not in a way which condemns listeners who do not share our values, but in a way which is strangely appealing. Yes, the peacemakers, rooted in Christ, loving those who do not share our values, will be the saints of Wales for the 21st century. The question is, will you choose to be among them?

Behold the Lamb!

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

White marble statues: a lamb standing on an altar, and in sequence to the left: St John with an open book, Our Lady with hands raised in prayer, and St Joseph with his head bowed.

The apparition site at Knock

An image! Of a Lamb, surrounded by angels!

One August evening in the year 1879, 15 people in the village of Knock, Ireland, saw a remarkable sight. On the east wall of their local chapel, appeared an image of the Lamb of God standing on an altar, accompanied by St Joseph, Our Lady, and St John. In due course, the church authorities interrogated the 15 witnesses and decided their testimony was credible – Knock remains the only vision to have been authenticated by church authorities in the Celtic nations.

Not a word was spoken by any of the figures who appeared in this vision. If we would understand the message of Knock, we must understand the meaning of the scene presented to us.

On an altar, stands the Lamb of God. Jesus appears as a Lamb because he is meek, and allows himself to be led to the Cross like a lamb to the slaughter. Jesus appears as a Lamb because he is a sacrifice who protects us from the power of death, just as the Jewish people of old sacrificed a lamb and marked their homes with its blood so the Angel of Death would pass over their homes without doing harm. Jesus appears as a Lamb because he was declared by John the Baptist to be the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

Each of the figures accompanying the Lamb of God has something to teach us.

As we read from left to right, we first see St Joseph with his head bowed in prayer. He reminds us that when we enter God’s House, when we enter this church of St John Lloyd, or any Catholic church where the Blessed Sacrament is kept, we come into a holy place, a place which it is right and proper that we should treat with respect. From time to time we should ask ourselves if we are always respectful of our church as a holy place. We may wish to speak a word of welcome or an urgent message to a friend we see within these four walls – but if doing so disturbs the prayer of even one person who is silently honouring the Lamb of God, we do better to take our conversation outside.

Our next instruction comes from Our Blessed Lady, who has her hands raised in prayer – an image which complements the vision we have just heard described in the pages of the Bible. In today’s Second Reading, the angels and saints attending the Lamb’s throne cry out that the Lamb is worthy of “praise, honour, glory and power, for ever and ever”, and then they bow down in worship. Our Lady of Knock stands in God’s presence with her hands raised in praise.

And we – we also give honour to the Lamb as we stand and kneel for the different movements of the Mass. We sing the Gloria and the Holy Holy at our Sunday Mass because we are joining, on Earth, what is constantly happening in heaven – the angels are singing praise to Jesus, the Lamb who was slain for us. The very words of  the Gloria and the Holy Holy are taken from the songs of angels as recorded in the pages of the Bible. We sing these songs on earth as a preparation for Heaven – because in heaven, we will sing an endless song of praise to Jesus and to His Father, the One who sits upon the Throne.

Before Mass, we gather in silent honour of the Lamb. During Mass we lift up our hands, our hearts and our voices to sing God’s praises. At the end of Mass, we are sent out with a message. We are to go and proclaim the Good News of Jesus to the world around us, and this is the lesson of St John with his open book.

Over the centuries, many thousands of Christians have risked life and limb for the privilege of speaking about Jesus to others. In today’s first reading, we have heard how the Apostles were flogged – that is, they were whipped – by the Jewish leaders who did not welcome the message of Jesus. In more recent centuries, St Paul Miki of Japan, St Andrew Kim Tae-gon of Korea,  and St Augustine Zhao Rong of China, head the lists of dozens of martyrs who were executed for preaching the message of Jesus in the Far East. In the Muslim world, scholars debate whether the Qu’ran requires the death penalty for those who turn away from Islam to follow the Christian faith, and some Islamic states have persecuted former Muslims who turn to Christianity.

What about us? We are free to practice our faith and to encourage others to consider the message of Jesus. In our nation-state, this is our right. As followers of Jesus, this is our duty. And therefore I wish to remind you of two very easy ways to speak about the message of Jesus which I mentioned to you before Easter.

In two weeks’ time, there is a weekend retreat in Cardiff designed especially for young people aged 16 to 25. I know that many of us here, today, have children or grandchildren who have stopped attending Mass. How can we encourage them to re-connect with God? At events like this weekend run by Youth 2000, the music and talks are led by young people; it’s far easier for a young person looking for faith to identify with another young person who has already found it, than with someone of an older generation. It’s very difficult to communicate faith to a teenager or young adult, but it is very easy to ask them whether they are willing to spend a weekend with other young people – an adventure, no less, staying up half the night if they wish, camping out indoors.

So I invite you to pause for a moment, and ponder:

  • Do you know any young person aged between 16 and 25?
  • Have you yet invited them to come to this retreat?
  • If not, what is stopping you?

If the problem is money, have a quiet word with me after Mass and there may be funds to allow you to offer a young person a sponsored place.

The Bible tells us that on the Day of Judgment, the martyrs will be first in the queue, and Jesus will be beaming at each one of them and congratulating them for laying down their lives for Him. I think that not far behind will be those, from our culture, who plucked up the courage to speak to a young person and invite them to this retreat. It doesn’t matter whether or not they accept this invitation – Jesus will be delighted that we made the effort to offer it. But at the very end of the queue will be those to be greeted by the sorrowful face of Jesus. I would not like to see the look in His eyes which says: “You did not love me enough even to pass on an invitation leaflet to one of my children.” It will be similar to the look which greeted the Apostles the first time they saw Jesus after running away from the Cross. But the Apostles were given another opportunity to speak about Jesus and give their lives for him. They were given another chance – and you, you still have two weeks to pass on the invitation – it’s in the parish newsletter – to any young people you know.

In three weeks’ time, there is another Catholic event in Cardiff, and it’s one open to all of us – you can take your children and grandchildren, too! It’s an opportunity to hear the message of Jesus in a way we don’t normally get the chance to experience. It’s one I strongly recommend to you. We can make lots of good excuses for not attending a God-centred weekend. If we have to work that weekend, we can’t go. But if we have children, we can take them, and if we can’t afford it, then again, have a word with me after Mass. If we, the Catholic community, don’t support these events, they will stop running – and it would be a great shame not to have a resource like this available anywhere in Wales.

Jesus once said to his listeners: “To what, then, can I compare the people of this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling out to each other: ‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not cry.’” It’s easy to make excuses – but the message of Knock invites us, the Celtic people, to put the Lamb of God at the centre of our lives. Let us not be the generation of whom Jesus says: “I put on two weekends for you, but you did not come and you did not invite your children.” Let us be the generation who receive what is on offer, and pass on the invitation to our children. Yes, it’s something different to what we are used to. But perhaps the Lord is asking us to let down our nets on the other side, to see what we can catch!