Children of God

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year B Vocation Sunday

A true Christian lays down his – or her – life in the service of others.

Many of us do this as parents. Once children come along, any caring parent is committed to dozens, nay, hundreds of sleepless or disturbed nights, and endless worry, which doesn’t stop when your offspring embark on teenage adventures or leave home. The bank of Mum & Dad – or the parental taxi service – are the way many parents lavish their love on their children. It’s normal. It’s natural. In fact, we are wired to go to extreme lengths for the sake of our children – and to worry about them ceaselessly!

What’s more remarkable is that some of us go to similar extremes for the sake of members of our church family.

Blessed_Marie-Anne_BlondinTake Blessed Marie-Anne Blondin. She lived 200 years ago in Canada – at a time when there was a church rule that parishes couldn’t run mixed-sex schools. Parishes usually couldn’t afford to run two schools! But she lobbied for the rule to be lifted and eventually formed a congregation of religious women to teach in mixed-sex schools. She was extremely successful – until a manipulative priest moved in, wrested control from her, and eventually had her forbidden from being re-elected as Mother Superior.

Sr Marie could have fought – but she chose not to. Her congregation had already grown and flourished, and she had a strong sense of God guiding her through the harsh decisions now being imposed upon her. First she was moved away to be headmistress at a distant school; then she was recalled to the Motherhouse, where she was kept to domestic chores, mostly in the laundry and ironing room. She wrote: “As for me, my Lord, I bless Divine Providence a thousand times for the maternal care she shows me in making me walk the way of tribulations and crosses”. To a novice who asked her one day why she, the Foundress, was kept aside in such lowly work, she simply replied with kindness: “The deeper a tree sinks its roots into the soil, the greater are its chances of growing and producing fruit”.

Prevented from being called “Mother” by those in authority, Mother Marie-Anne did not jealously hold on to her title of Foundress; rather she chose annihilation, just like Jesus, “her crucified Love”, so that her Community might live. However, she didn’t renounce her mission of spiritual mother of her Community. She offered herself to God for the sins which were committed in the Community” and she daily prayed to Saint Anne for her spiritual daughters. Like any prophet charged with a mission of salvation, Mother Marie-Anne lived persecution by forgiving without restriction, convinced that “there is more happiness in forgiving than in revenge”.

The story I have just shared with you is not that of a weakling, but that of a powerful woman strong enough to sacrifice herself in imitation of Christ. She sensed when God was calling her to stand up in the face of bishops and challenge the status quo; she also sensed when God was calling her to an act of great humility.

The Church needs women like Sr Marie-Anne, women who see the new needs of the church in the present age and dedicate their whole life to working for it, choosing to deploy the weapons of humility and boldness as appropriate.

The Church also needs priests who are men after God’s own heart. We need men who can do better than the bishops and priests Blessed Marie-Anne encountered.

Where do these priests and sisters come from? They come from among us.

Parents, are you praying that any of your children or godchildren should receive a calling? I know this can feel like a threat. You do not want your children to suffer hardship or make the sacrifices which priesthood or religious life demands. So I will offer you some advice to put your minds at rest. It is the realisation I came to when I stopped saying “no” to God.

Do you believe that Jesus is wiser than you are? He is the Great Teacher, the Lord of the Universe. Can you trust that he knows better than you do what will be best for each of your children?

Do you believe that Jesus loves each one of your children more than you could ever imagine? He laid down his life on the Cross for each one of them, after all! And surely if he loves them so much, he will not choose anything that causes needless harm to them!

Do you want Jesus to be Lord of your life, and that of your children? It is very easy to live with Jesus as your spiritual advisor. He makes suggestions; you make decisions. If you only do what Jesus suggests when you like His ideas, he is not your Lord. But if you give up your power of veto and allow him to make all the decisions, then you have climbed into the passenger seat and given him the wheel.

The beautiful second reading today speaks of our status as God’s children – and promises that we will be “like him”. The challenge to parents is that if you cling to your own children, you are really hoping they will be “like you” – it’s only when you allow them to be God’s children that you give them permission to be “like God”!

So pray with me, if you dare, the following prayer. Please ONLY repeat each line after me if you are comfortable saying it:

Dear Jesus, I give you each one of my children – my grandchildren – my godchildren.

Thank you for loving them, for dying on the Cross so each one of them could enter heaven.

Thank you for allowing each one to be adopted into God’s family.

Now I entrust each child to God.

Heavenly Father, call each child to that path in life which is truly best.

Lord Jesus Christ, I trust in you.

Jesus, I trust in you.

Advice for non-UK citizens wishing to be priests in the UK

I often receive messages on Facebook from young men who live outside the UK but would like advice on becoming priests in the UK. To avoid repeating myself, I am publishing some advice here.

First of all, thank you for being open to the call of God who may be asking you to offer yourself for the priesthood. Any call to the priesthood involves obedience, either to a religious superior, or to a local Bishop. In order to become a priest you must respect the procedures which the church leaders lay down.

In the UK, there are 22 dioceses across England and Wales, and 7 in Scotland. There are five Irish dioceses partly or wholly within Northern Ireland. Becoming a diocesan priest means pledging to a bishop that you will spend your whole life working in his territory (diocese). And in order to be accepted, you must already be familiar with the local culture. To be an effective priest you must know something about the lives of the people you will minister to. This might be because you grew up in that area; it might be that you have lived there for some time; it might be that you came there as a university student and stayed on.

Can someone from outside the UK become a priest for a British diocese? Yes, but it happens gradually. You can read the story of Chinedo Udo who came from Nigeria to study in London. Generally, you need to spend a period of at least 1-2 years living in the UK, at your own expense, meeting with the local vocations director. You will also need to have the right immigration status to allow you to continue to study and then to work in the UK. One English diocese notes on its website “in common with the other dioceses of England and Wales, we have a policy of not accepting applications from abroad. All our applicants must be legitimately resident in the United Kingdom”.

Another way of being a priest is to join a religious order. Some of these work internationally – but the normal way is to join is to approach the branch in your home country. Once again, there is a slow process of years rather than months where you might visit the order for a short time and then a longer time before actually becoming a member. Once you are fully trained and ordained, they will decide if you have the right gifts and talents to be sent to another country. Some orders have a particular focus on external missionary work – for instance, Nigerian residents can join the Missionaries of St Paul in the expectation of travelling elsewhere.

No diocese or religious order in the UK is going to fund or interview a person not currently living in the UK. If you truly believe that God is asking you to work in the UK rather than your own country, you must also trust that God will provide the means for you to get a secular job and a work permit in the UK, so you can learn the local culture and begin the long interview process. If there is a part of your heart that believes the UK has a high living standard and being a priest in the UK would enable to you to raise your income or send money home to your family, then be warned – Jesus said that we must be ready to leave everything, including property and family, to follow him. If income is what is truly on your heart, then your heart is not ready to be the heart of a priest.

Callings

Homily at St Philip Evans for the 4th Sunday of Easter, Year A Vocation Sunday

He calls his sheep one by one. They follow because they know his voice.

In recent years, six young men connected with South Wales have sensed the voice of the Shepherd, asking them to consider being priests for our diocese. They are now at different stages of training in seminary or in parishes. One, Jonathan Stogdon, will soon be spending a year with us at St Philip Evans.

Training a priest is not a quick exercise. I can speak from experience when I say that it is both measured and wide-ranging. The time it takes to train a priest – typically 4 to 6 years – is less about the amount of information to be learned, more about the time needed to form a mature human personality. The classes are small, and the attention is personal. But that doesn’t come cheap. Between the board and lodge, and the salaries of full-time staff and part-time experts, it can cost £20,000 per year, per student, to train a priest.

For several years, Cardiff had no seminarians. Now we have six – but this is an expensive blessing! Today the Archbishop is inviting you to contribute to these training costs through a special collection. [Explain practicalities.]

He calls his sheep one by one. They follow because they know his voice.

In our own parish, we are blessed that many young people have sensed the voice of the Shepherd inviting them to assist at the altar. Of all the parishes I have worked in, none has had as many regular servers as St Philip Evans. Today we enrol some of our servers in the Guild of Saint Stephen, a recognition of their commitment to serve. Also this weekend we award silver medals to two of our servers, Caru King and Cathy MacGillivray, in recognition of 10 years of loyal service.

The strength of our parish depends on what we contribute – as readers, cleaners, helping in ways behind the scenes or more visible. If you wish to be a reader, or an altar server, or serve in any other way, please don’t wait to be asked. It is easy to contact the right person – every week there is a list on the back page of the parish newsletter!

He calls his sheep one by one. They follow because they know his voice.

30 years ago, there was a shepherd who called the people of Llanedeyrn to form a new parish. His name was John Maguire. Some of you here were part of that founding community, meeting in the school hall before this church was built. [Invite show of hands.] Thanks to his work as pastor – which means shepherd – we have both a parish and a church.

A church building is a blessing, a trap, and a big responsibility. It is a blessing because we have our own place to worship and to pray. It is a trap because with a building, we can forget the church is really built of living stones. Jesus said his flock would go in and out; each week we gather and disperse again. It’s what we do together as members of church that makes our community strong. Finally, this church building is a responsibility because like all public buildings, it must be maintained and kept safe and secure – and that doesn’t come cheap.

At the end of today’s Mass, our parish finance officer, Bernie Nolan*, will ask us to consider being involved in running the social life of our parish, and how we contribute to the parish’s running costs. At the moment we are breaking even as a  parish. The student coming to us next year is a blessing – but will also mean that our council tax and household bills will go up. I will ask the diocese to make a contribution from the priest training fund, but we will get a direct benefit from the work of the student, and it is only fair we contribute something as a parish to his keep.

The Good Shepherd calls his sheep one by one. They follow because they know his voice.

Jesus promised us “life to the full”. How do we access that life? First, we take seriously our parish prayer, “Here I am Lord, use me as you will.” If this prayer is merely words that we echo each Sunday, it will not bear fruit. But if we pray it seriously, genuinely asking God what we are to do to serve him, we will begin to sense the call of the shepherd. God’s call may challenge us, but is never beyond what we can achieve, with divine help. It’s only when we accept this challenge that we can know the deep satisfaction, the fullness of life: such fulfilment only comes from knowing that we have generously responded to God’s call to the best of our ability.

The shepherd asks different things of different people – preparing food, erecting gazebos, serving on committees, reading at Mass, serving at the altar, joining a religious order or even devoting one’s entire life to the priesthood. He know best!

He calls his sheep one by one. They follow because they know his voice. What is he asking of you?

* No, she’s not the Bernie Nolan you may be thinking of.

Christ and Our Common Priesthood

Homily at St John Lloyd for the 31st Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Who is Jesus? And who are we?

Over the next four weeks, I’d like to invite you to take a fresh look at who Jesus is. It’s very appropriate in this Year of Faith to seek to get to know Jesus better. And the better we know Jesus, the better we know ourselves – because Jesus teaches us what it is to be truly human. When we’ve made a mistake, we might excuse ourselves by saying, “well, I’m only human” – but that would be the incorrect answer! When we get something wrong, we are being less than human, because we’re made in God’s image, and God is perfection.

On the front of this pulpit are four images – four plaques representing different aspects of Our Lord Jesus Christ: as a man, as a King, as a sacrifice, and as the one who is connected to heaven. Each of these images also teaches us something about what it is to be human. Today, I’d like to focus on Christ who is the bridge between heaven and earth – Christ the Great High Priest.

Plaques on the Pulpit at St John Lloyd Church, Cardiff.

From the beginning of recorded history, human communities have identified certain members as priests and priestesses, men or women understood to be in touch with the spiritual world. We have a deep-seated human instinct that we need to make some kind of connection with our Creator, and we naturally seek help from someone who might help to make that connection. In part, those priests and priestesses were responding to a genuine sense of God’s presence; but in part, they also brought their own limited understanding of God and their own human weaknesses to the role.

In the fullness of time, God began to speak to human beings, to teach them the kind of priesthood that would truly worship God. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, there are few priests – significant figures like Cain and Abel, and Abraham, offer their own sacrifices to God. Abraham does, however, recognise one priest – the mysterious figure of King Melchizedek, whose name you will hear alongside Abel’s in the Eucharistic Prayer which I’ll use today.

When Moses led God’s chosen people out of Egypt, he received instructions from God for a new kind of priesthood, the Jewish priesthood. The family of Aaron would become the new high priests of Israel; one of the twelve tribes of Israelites, the tribe of Levi, was not to have a share of land to cultivate, but instead would become priests offering prayers for the people. They were to keep and eat a portion of the meat and crops offered in sacrifice to God, as their wages. For a thousand years and more, barring invasions, priests offered sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. Once a year, on the day of atonement, the High Priest would first sacrifice a bull as an offering for his own sins, and then sacrifice a goat as an offering for the sins of the whole people. And each Christmas, when we read the Nativity story, we remember how Mary and Joseph had to offer two pigeons for the priest to sacrifice, as a thanksgiving for the safe birth of Jesus.

When the first Christians tried to make sense of who Jesus was, they realised that although he wasn’t from the tribe of Levi, or a descendent of Aaron, he’d become the perfect priest of the Jewish religion. The priests who served in the temple had to make sacrifices for their own sins, and eventually grew old and were replaced by the next generation of priests. But Jesus, the sinless one, was worthy to pray for the whole world; and now that he had risen from the dead, his priesthood could never end.

If Jesus was the true high priest, what about those Christian leaders who took bread and wine and celebrated the Eucharist in memory of Jesus? The early Christians called their leaders “presbyters”, which is Greek for “elders” and the word from which we get Presbytery (Priest’s House). But later, after the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and Jewish priests no longer offered sacrifices, Christians became more comfortable calling their leaders “priests”. Every Catholic Priest stands in the place of Jesus, connecting the community to God through the power to make Christ present in the form of bread and wine, and to declare forgiveness for sins. But there are two kinds of priesthood, and today I will speak not of the priesthood which a few men receive through ordination, but of the other kind of priesthood, which the Church calls “the common priesthood of all believers”.

When Jesus died on the Cross, Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that the curtain covering the holiest part of the Jewish Temple was torn in half. In a part of the Letter to the Hebrews which we don’t hear in our Sunday readings, God’s Word explains this: we now have a direct connection to God which wasn’t available to us before Jesus died. ALL of God’s people, baptised and connected to Jesus, now have the right to come into God’s presence and pray. That’s worth remembering!

We can pray to God in the familiar words “Our Father”, but let’s not take God for granted. If we become blasé and pray the Our Father casually, we’re forgetting what an awesome privilege it is to be able to address the God of the Universe at all. It’s as if Queen Elizabeth or President Obama gave you their mobile phone number and said: “Any time, you can call me!” – that’s the privilege we’ve got as children of God. It also means that if another religious believer – a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu or a Sikh – wanted to join in our prayers, we can’t simply say “go ahead”. Only those who have been baptised have the right to address God as “Father”. We are bold to do so!

So when we come to the Lord’s Prayer at this Mass, listen carefully to the priest’s words of invitation. Our Missal first says “At the Saviour’s Command” – that’s a good reason for being bold – and then “formed by divine teaching” – because God has taught us that we have become his children. Then the launchpad words are “we dare to say…” – yes, it’s a bold thing indeed to call God, “Father”, but that’s our privilege as a royal priesthood, as baptised members of the Church of Jesus Christ.

One of the ancient Christian writers once said: “Fish swim. Birds fly. People pray.” Praying is the one thing we can do, which no other creature on God’s earth can – it’s our unique privilege. Because Christ is now seated at the right hand of God in heaven, we can reach up to heaven by our prayers at any time. And when Jesus commands us to love God with all our heart, he is asking us not only to commit ourselves to service of our neighbour – within whom God dwells, hidden – but also to approach God directly through our personal prayer and acts of worship. To spend time deliberately and directly addressing God and listening for God’s Word expresses love for God in the most direct way we possibly can.

So take a good look at yourself. You have a status in God’s eyes which is not shared by three-quarters of the billions of inhabitants of planet Earth – you are baptised, with the right to stand before God in prayer and call Him Father. You have the right to thank God for all that is good in the world, to plead for those in distress, and beseech God to have mercy on all sinners. You are a priestly people, a holy nation, a people set apart for God. So I leave you with a question: how are you going to live out your priesthood during the week to come?

Bonus material for those reading the homily online:

The Great Commandment: Matthew 22:35b-40

… Jesus said, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbour as yourself…

The Great Commission: Matthew 28:16-20

Jesus said, ‘Go, make disciples of all the nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all the commands I gave you. ‘

The Response of the Disciples: Acts 2:37b-47

These remained faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. The faithful … went as a body to the Temple every day but met in their houses for the breaking of bread; they shared their food gladly and generously; they praised God and were looked up to by everyone. Day by day the Lord added to their community those destined to be saved.

APPLICATION

Flowing from the readings above, there are certain things which every Christian Community must do in order to be the kind of community which God is calling it to be.

LOVE OF NEIGHBOUR requires us to invest some of our time, our talents and our money in serving others. Our “neighbour” encompasses both our local community, and the poorer nations of a global economy in which the UK, despite the current recession, is still relatively rich.

LOVE OF GOD is expressed not only through service of our neighbour – within whom God dwells, hidden – but also through our personal prayer and acts of worship. To spend time deliberately and directly addressing God and listening for God’s Word expresses love for God in the most direct way possible.

There are two traps we can easily fall into.

PIOUSNESS is the trap of paying so much attention to the fine details of how and when to pray that we neglect our neighbour’s needs, or treat members of our community who don’t share our piety, with disdain. Scripture warns us that if we have no love for our neighbour, there is something inadequate about our love for God. (The whole of the First Letter of St John is a meditation on this theme, and see also James 3:18.)

HUMANITARIANISM is an exclusive concern with the well-being of our neighbour. The world is full of humanitarians, and we applaud the work they do. Some are motivated by religious beliefs, others by a simple care for their fellow human beings. But for us as followers of Jesus Christ, the trap is to say that if we have exercised humanitarian care, we have done everything which God asks of us. No! Jesus gave us two great commandments which are inseparable yet distinct. For us as believers, Humanitarianism may be motivated by love of God but is, by its nature, an expression of love of Neighbour. We must remember that we are also called to the First Commandment, which is to remember, love, worship and obey God for God’s own sake.